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August 1, 2013

Maine Voices: Bowen: Students' chance to explore military service shouldn't be an issue

By STEPHEN BOWEN Special to the Press Herald

AUGUSTA - In 2005, as the nation fought two wars, the school board for Maine's largest district, in Portland, made national headlines for its efforts to tightly limit the access of military recruiters without violating what was then the newly enacted No Child Left Behind Act.

That federal law requires schools receiving federal funds to allow access to military recruiters, but it does not specify whether those recruiters can wear military uniforms or administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. This multi-aptitude test helps interested students understand their strengths and determine the career fields -- including those in the military -- for which they might be best suited.

Nearly a decade later, I am happy to read in the pages of this paper that this district does in fact allow students access to recruiters and sees the value in doing so. 

To make their case, the district even provided the media a photo of a uniformed National Guard recruiter interacting with a student during a recent "Thinking Outside of the Box" career fair, though I must say given our state proudly has the second-highest concentration of veterans per capita, I hope a military career is not viewed as one that's out of the box.

But some things haven't changed. Mainers are still bravely serving their country here at home and in faraway places like Afghanistan. And unfortunately, military recruiters still feel that in some schools they are not truly welcome.

When those recruiters shared their serious concerns with me and other members of the LePage administration, both verbally and in well-publicized email exchanges, we responded with two bills that shared one goal: ensuring that Maine's students have the opportunity to explore military service.

Had they been enacted, our proposals would have required school boards to adopt local policies allowing the administration of the armed services aptitude test and guaranteeing uniformed military recruiters the same access to meet with students enjoyed by other postsecondary and career recruiters.

I am deeply disappointed that both bills ultimately failed as a result of partisan politics and an insistence by some that the LePage administration and the recruiters with whom we spoke weren't telling the truth about these being real problems that needed solving. 

The charge that this issue was manufactured for patriotic political purposes is offensive to me, but more importantly, it is disrespectful to Maine's more than 135,000 veterans -- many from the Vietnam era -- and ignores the subtle discrimination they often face. 

It should be noted the same week our proposals were rejected, in Washington, D.C., Democrats introduced bills into both the Senate and the House to make military service a protected status to ensure that those who serve are not discriminated against when they look for civilian work and housing.

In the weeks since the Legislature adjourned, a number of Maine schools and districts have publicly affirmed their commitment to making their open-door policies known.

This is the right thing to do, and it means that their students will have the opportunity to explore all of the exciting options that await them after graduation. I applaud these districts for putting their students first in this way, as all should be doing.

But those public insistences don't discount the fact that members of our military feel their uniformed presence is not uniformly welcomed in schools -- including in those very schools that maintain that they allow at least some degree of access.

When it comes to perceptions of access, schools and recruiters can both be right, but what matters most is that we do what is right for Maine kids. The LePage administration's proposals were an attempt to do just that by resolving that disparity.

The fact that the uniformed recruiter bill won such strong support in the Legislature, including that of Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond, who said he believed the bill was "necessary," and House Speaker Mark Eves, suggests that this is a valid issue we still need to address and will next January.

In the meantime, with school starting up again in just a few weeks, districts could and should take this opportunity to put in place a policy supporting administration of the armed services aptitude test and access for uniformed recruiters. This would ensure that as we move forward, there would be no question from students, educators, parents and our military recruiters of what is and is not allowed in our schools.

Ultimately, it is this action that will send our students a strong message that military service is something to which they should aspire.

Stephen Bowen is Maine's commissioner of education.





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