Backward March

The image of charter schools as free-form, grassroots alternatives to public schools is getting a face lift, thanks to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. The former California governor has shirked his old Moonbeam ways to spearhead a publicly funded military charter school for secondary students.

Brown's Oakland Military Institute, which the state board of education approved after city and county school boards rejected it, welcomed its first batch of students in August. Though not the first public military school in the country, it may be the most controversial.

"There was extreme opposition," Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb explains. "Oakland is a richly activist city, and has some very strong feelings regarding the military."

The school won't board students for at least another year, but is otherwise a typical military institute. From 0700 hours until 1800 hours every weekday, teachers inundate uniformed students with standard academic fare flanked by such military classics as reveille, inspections, and outdoor exercises. On Saturdays, the students perform community service. Brown has assured those weary of regimented education that, "While there will be an emphasis on standardized achievement, nothing will be done to harm the students' inherent capacity to learn."

The school's Web site, while fraught with grammatical errors, proudly trumpets the academy's ability to churn out corporate drones: "As disciplined, and motivated individuals, OMI grads have the capacity to quickly become an asset within any company structure....Organized, prompt, result oriented [sic] employee [sic] are golden to any employer..." (Never mind the fact that OMI just opened and hasn't yet produced any of these golden grads.)

Opponents of the school say the military environment promotes violence and supports the racist idea that young African Americans, the school's primary demographic, require coercion to learn. Another complaint is its cost. OMI spends roughly $20,000 per student -- double what other area schools spend -- and has so far required an additional $3 million in state and local funds to stay operational.

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