The New York City public school system doesn’t have the money, time or organizational skills to make sure every child has a dictionary–or a desk. But this fall it found something like $50,000 to send the parents or guardians of all 250,000 high school students a letter informing them that if they didn’t want their child’s name, address and phone number to be given to military recruiters they had to fill out a form (enclosed) stating they did not consent to the release of the data. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who misplaced the letter before it was even opened, and almost missed the final deadline for sending in the form. Had it not turned up at the last minute, the military would have my 15-year-old daughter’s contact information and GI Joe and Jane could be interrupting dinner nightly to urge her to be all that she can be–Sergeant Sophie!

Military recruiting on campus. Isn’t this where I came in?

Thank the mammoth No Child Left Behind Act. Military recruiters were quietly added to an obscure provision that requires schools to give students’ contact information to “institutions of higher learning”–itself unnecessary, by the way, since students can elect to do this when they take the SAT or the ACT. Combined with the Solomon Amendment, which denies funding to colleges that ban military recruiters, the provision gives the armed forces pretty much total access to the student population. Why the stepped-up effort? You might not know it from the constant barrage of patriotic propaganda and a few highly visible post-9/11 enlistments–Doris Kearns Goodwin proudly announced on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour that her son had joined up–but interest in the military is quite low: Kids would rather get jobs, if they can find them, or go to college. To get one suitable candidate, recruiters must contact about 120 young people. I like to think, too, that aggressive recruitment efforts are also a backhanded tribute to the much-maligned baby boomers. We may have worn silly clothes, smoked too much pot and made millionaires of The Captain and Tennille–“Muskrat Love,” what were we thinking!–but we didn’t raise our children to bomb Baghdad.

Of course, military recruiters have long been active around high schools. But it’s one thing for them to make their pitch to kids who stop at a booth or a table, and quite another for the schools to deliver to the military the names, home addresses and phone numbers of a huge captive pool of teenagers. Even hawkish conservatives–the ones like William Safire who worry about the amassing of personal data by government, credit card companies, Internet merchants and so on–should be able to spot the invasion of privacy here.

The opt-out model of consent, in which parents must take action to keep their kids out of an activity, typically produces few responses. Nothing about this envelope marked its contents as urgent or requiring a response (the letter about military recruitment was wadded in with the discipline code and the principal’s list of rules intended to improve “school tone”–no headphones during class, no cell phones ever). Some parents are too busy, or are uninvolved in their kids’ school lives. Many don’t speak English. Some can’t even read. Interestingly, Stuyvesant, my daughter’s school, will shortly be sending out a letter informing parents about an upcoming survey evaluating student’s mental health post-9/11. The permission form is opt-in–parents have to OK their children’s participation.

“People should have the right to control their contact information, which may even include unlisted phone numbers,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is calling for New York City schools to adopt an opt-in policy on military recruitment (Fairport, near Rochester, has already done so). “Sure, they can hang up, but it’s still an invasion of privacy, and potentially more than that. We’ve had reports of Muslim and Southwest Asian immigrants afraid to report crimes and fires for fear of being detained by the INS. Do we want to make them afraid to send their kids to school too? In any case, why should the schools bend over backward to sacrifice students’ privacy in order to help the military meet its recruiting goals?”

Military service is often touted as a path to jobs and education and adulthood, a way out of poverty, negativism, trouble. Unfortunately, there’s a catch–every now and then, to the vast surprise of many enlistees, there’s a war. As the Bush Administration hustles the nation toward the next one, the schools should be teaching young people to be skeptical about hard-sell recruiting tactics that paint military service as Outward Bound in uniform, not serving their charges up on a plate. Otherwise, as Lieberman quips, “We might as well call the No Child Left Behind Act the No Child Left Out of the Military Database Act.”

Postscript: An administrator at Stuyvesant tells me the no-consent forms are “flying in. I’ve never seen anything like it!” That may or may not be part of a larger trend, but it’s one more tiny indicator that whatever the polls say, the Bush Administration has not yet succeeded in fooling all of the people all the time.

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Floods of money and material aid washed over New York after 9/11, but little of it reached the people who needed it most–the same people who needed it before 9/11, but more. Schoolkids, for example. If you would like to support dedicated teachers in underserved, mostly minority New York City schools, take a look at On this website, donors can choose among various projects for which teachers would like support. Current requests range from the bare bones, like books, art supplies and science equipment, to the things middle-class kids take for granted–cameras, field trips, a computer with Internet access and a printer to help seniors with college applications. If nothing else, wrote one teacher asking for help replenishing his school’s tattered sixth-grade classroom libraries in the face of upcoming budget cuts of $400,000 to the district, donorschoose “allows teachers to hope in these bleak days.” Point worth noting: The money spent on the military recruitment letter could have paid for plenty of items on the donorschoose’s wish list.