District Ill Served When Nominations To Service Academies Go Begging

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton comes up short.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton comes up short. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
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Thursday, June 19, 2008; Page B01

Aside from the VIP license plates and the ability to breeze through security checkpoints, one of the great perks of being in Congress is the ability to hand out nominations to elite, tuition-free colleges to some of the highest-achieving high school students in the land.

In the Washington suburbs, hundreds of impressive teens compete each year to win their representative's nomination to West Point or the Naval, Air Force or Merchant Marine academies. But in the District of Columbia, spots at the service academies often go unused.

At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, there is not a single cadet nominated by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), according to an academy spokesman. At the Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, there is but one Norton nominee, a spokesman there says.

Contrast Norton's record with that of, say, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who has 14 nominees studying at the Air Force Academy; Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has six; or Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), with 13.

I asked the academies to break out the number of their students nominated by Washington area House members in the past five years. Norton substantially lags her colleagues, with a total of 20 students inducted, compared, for example, with 62 for Davis and 53 for Wolf. Norton's suburban counterparts say interest is so high among high school students that they can easily nominate more than enough qualified candidates to be confident of filling their quota of slots at the academies.

Norton's, however, is the rare congressional office that uses far fewer than its 40 annual allotted nominations. "I only wish I could fill my slots," she says.

"The numbers are definitely down," says Kerwin Miller, chairman of Norton's Service Academy Selection Board, a panel of academy alumni and local educators who screen applicants for the delegate. "It used to take us three nights to interview all the applicants, and we had to divide ourselves into separate panels. Lately, we've been able to get it done in one night, with all of us together in one room. Many of the students say it's their parents who don't want them to go."

Norton says big-city residents seem less enamored of the military these days. "There's no question the military is less popular than ever," she says.

Cartwright Moore, the Norton staffer who manages the application process, says the decline in interest in the service academies appears to be related to the Iraq war and the reluctance of many D.C. parents to send their children into harm's way. "We've been beating our brains trying to get more students to apply," Moore says. "We've had some years recently where no one requested a nomination to an academy. This is at least a quarter of a million dollars' worth of education, for free."

Suburban House members often interview students themselves and regularly hold recruiting sessions at local high schools. In the District, meanwhile, Moore says he has no contact with principals or college counselors and doesn't know of any with a particular passion for guiding promising students toward the academies.

The record also points to the continuing failure of the D.C. public schools to produce quality candidates. Of the eight nominations Norton has made over the past two years, seven went to students at private schools -- Gonzaga, Archbishop Carroll, Georgetown Day, Landon -- or charter schools such as IDEA and Washington Math Science Technology. The only Norton pick from a regular D.C. public school was a stellar girl from this year's senior class at Wilson High.

"The private schools have the brains and the brawn," Norton says. But she insists that there are talented students in the public schools who could get into the academies but choose instead to go to liberal arts colleges. "Look at the colleges where kids from Wilson, Banneker and School Without Walls go, and you know the pool is there."

"We used to get better candidates from the public schools," Miller says. "It's really incumbent upon us now to get into the middle schools and reach out to plant the idea about the military academies."

Norton says she works hard "to make the academies a big deal" but wants to do more, including bringing in current cadets to visit D.C. high schools.

There's not much the District's elected delegate can do about the fact that she has no vote in the House. But using her allotted nominations to give some of the city's needy kids a shot at a terrific, free college education is within her power.

Other House members say they devote lots of personal energy to recruiting students in person and online. Norton has plenty of space on her Web site's home page for links to five of her appearances on "The Colbert Report" and a lead headline about comedian Stephen Colbert's video tribute to the delegate, yet nothing about her nominees to the service academies.

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