Unnecessary fight drags soldiers into controversy

In fewer than 70 words, a legislative molehill has turned into a political tempest.

That’s what has happened with LD 1503, “An Act to Ensure Student Access to Postsecondary Military Options.”

The little bill, which would have little practical impact on schools, students and military recruiters, has created a firestorm, with some political observers wondering whether the fight over the bill will make it an issue in the November 2014 elections.

First, to catch you up in case you’ve missed the hubbub.

Apparently, word got to Gov. Paul LePage and members of the Legislature that some military recruiters had trouble making recruiting calls at some Maine high schools.

The politicos then introduced a bill that was intended to solve the problem. Unfortunately for the bill’s champions, there have been legitimate questions raised since then about whether there is a problem with military recruiters having access to schools. The lack of trust between the governor and Democratic lawmakers has also come into play.

The governor has pointed his finger at some schools, claiming they gave recruiters a hard time. The schools have refuted the accusation – loudly. And some members of the Legislature, particularly some Democrats who are skeptical of anything LePage says, responded by voting against the measure.

The bill passed with bipartisan support, but it didn’t achieve the two-thirds vote necessary for what was deemed an unfunded mandate.

Here’s the language of the bill: “A school board of a publicly supported secondary school and a governing board of a secondary public charter school shall adopt and implement a policy ensuring that uniformed recruiters for the United States Armed Forces or the Maine National Guard are provided the same access and opportunity to meet with secondary students as are provided to other postsecondary and career recruiters.”

Regardless of whether LePage was telling the truth about the complaint from a military recruiter or not, the bill was redundant.

Access for military recruiters is guaranteed in federal law.

Here’s the federal law: “[Schools] shall provide to military recruiters the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to postsecondary educational institutions or to prospective employers of those students.”

In fact, federal law goes even further. Unless a student or his or her family opts out, schools are required to share personal information, such as names, addresses and telephone numbers, with military recruiters.

And if a school refuses, Katy bar the door.

The feds and the Department of Defense, as you might expect, have very specific guidelines for what’s supposed to happen if a military recruiter is denied access to students.

According to the DoD, if a high school denies a military recruiter’s request for access, the recruiter must report the school as noncompliant with the law, and that information is entered into the Recruiter Access to High Schools Database.

The database is password protected, so not just anybody can see it. But the government knows if a school is bucking the recruiting rules.

If a school denies access or refuses to give student directory information to recruiters of two or more recruiters, then a military officer – of at least the rank of colonel, Navy captain or senior executive – is dispatched to the school within 120 days.

If the problem continues, the Secretary of Defense must notify the governor, then the Secretary of Education and eventually Congress.

There are serious consequences for ignoring this federal law, including the loss of funding.

During my time in the governor’s office, we would often get complaints from sincere individuals about mistreatment that they had received at the hands of government. Sometimes the complaints were absolutely legitimate. Sometimes they weren’t. And often the facts were in between.

I think it’s true a military recruiter had a bad experience with a school and the story was relayed to lawmakers, including LePage. From there, the issue took on a life of its own because nobody bothered to check to make sure all the details were correct or to examine how widespread the problem was or determine what actually occurred.

The next thing you know, we have legislation, a political fight, Republicans attacking the patriotism of Democrats and schools defending their honor.

If the goal was to make sure schools were complying with federal law, the Maine Department of Education could have sent an administrative letter reminding schools of the rules.

The department sends such letters all the time. It also could have reached out directly to principals and superintendents to gather information and find a solution.

Instead, the decision was made to turn the issue into a partisan grudge match and to try to score political points, while inflaming veterans and military supporters. The end result: No state law, federal law still applies.

Of course military recruiters should be able to talk to high school students. Federal law makes sure of it.

Will the recruiter bill become an issue in 2014? Perhaps that’s what the fighting was really all about. But it’s a shame that the men and women in our military – the people who help to protect us at home and around the world – were dragged into an unnecessary fight.

They deserve our support and our respect. And in this case, that means not dragging them into unnecessary political turmoil.