Youth-Service Mandate Splits Educators in Maryland

By Millicent Lawton — December 11, 1991 6 min read

The prolonged process has given parents time to get used to the idea, Ms. Portis noted, adding that students have backed the concept from the outset.

The state board of education is expected this month to consider whether to change the measure, which currently calls for 75 hours of service spread over the middle- and high-school years. A final vote on the proposal, which is part of a larger package of changes to state graduation requirements, could come in February or March.

If the policy is approved, Maryland could be the first state to mandate service for all students.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, a legislative proposal calling for a statewide requirement of 40 hours over four years of high school is awaiting consideration by the full Senate. The measure appears to enjoy widespread bipartisan backing, and supporters hope for passage in that chamber before mid-January.

At the district level, some systems, including Detroit and Atlanta, have had mandatory-service programs for several years.

In Maryland, advocates of the service requirement argue that student service teaches young people to be good citizens by raising their consciousness about their role in the community. Mandating such an experience, they say, is no different from telling students that they must study math or history or requiring them to take physical education.

“We say Shakespeare is important. We say geography is important. I think we should be saying giving back to the community is important,’' said Evelyn Blose Holman, superintendent of the Wicomico County, Md., schools.

Such civic lessons are best explored by becoming involved in them personally--whether working in a soup kitchen or making gifts for hospital patients--contends Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance at the state department of education.

“One has to learn to participate in a democracy, and one learns best by doing,” said Ms. Townsend, considered the “prime mover” behind the service-mandate proposal.

Ms. Townsend said she does not think of the plan as mandating volunteerism.

“It has nothing to do with volunteerism,” she said. “I see it as an education issue: how do we teach young people to be good citizens? That’s the issue.”

The service proposal seems to have garnered extensive support in the state’s business and social-service communities. Ms. Townsend cites backing from the Urban League and the United Way and from such Maryland-based companies as the Noxell Corporation and the Black & Decker Manufacturing Company.

Educators Cool to the Idea

Educators, on the other hand, have been cool to the idea.

Of Maryland’s 24 school systems, just two small districts formally support the service mandate. Ms. Holman’s Wicomico County is one of those, as is Queen Anne’s County, where the superintendent, Joseph L. Shilling, was the state schools chief when he offered the proposal to the state board earlier this year.

Officials in other districts said they wholeheartedly support the concept of community service for students and pointed out that they currently oversee widespread voluntary school-based service activities.

But educators also expressed concerns ranging from philosophical questions about whether “caring” can be mandated to logistical problems posed by record keeping, transportation, and liability insurance.

“We’re sort of caught in a delicate position” of balancing the desire to promote service with serious doubts about a requirement, said Frank Lynn Mayer, director of high-school instruction in Baltimore County.

Mr. Mayer said he worried, for example, that a mandate would undermine the sincerity of the 30 percent to 40 percent of county students who are currently involved as volunteers. He also expressed concern about the potential liability of the school district if a student is hurt while performing service in the community, and about the cost of tracking “who’s doing what when” at a time when state funding is being cut back.

‘Action as Education’

Ms. Townsend said she thinks most of the opposition to the service requirement comes from educators who are not used to thinking of “action as education.”

“We’re too accustomed to thinking of education as sitting in a classroom listening to lectures,” she argued.

Logistics need not be an obstacle, she added, because other districts have had students themselves keep track of their service activities and hours. If transportation to service sites poses a problem for rural districts, she said, the activities could be performed on campus.

As for the possibility that a district would be sued, Ms. Townsend said: “Almost any service site worth serving at carries liability insurance.”

Ms. Holman of Wicomico County said she could understand anti-mandate positions of other administrators as being in part a “cry of frustration” over more responsibilities being placed on education without more time and money. Nevertheless, she added, “Anything is a problem if you make it a problem.”

Ms. Townsend said the state board’s decision may come down to “who is the constituency for education” the business and social-service communities that support the idea or the school districts that oppose it.

‘Sense of Momentum’

Despite the hurdles facing service mandates--which in some cases have included lawsuits filed by parents-some districts have forged ahead. The issue seems to be garnering more attention, if not outright support, around the country, observers say.

“There’s a real sense of momentum to the field” of youth service generally, said Roger Landrum, executive director of Youth Service America, a Washington-based umbrella group. Indeed, the June issue of the education journal Phi Delta Kappan focused on youth service.

But Mr. Landrum noted that he does not support mandating service for graduation.

“Mandating ... cuts against quality control,” he said. Rushing into a statewide requirement, he warned, could override efforts to provide trained adult supervisors and worthwhile service activities followed by thoughtful reflection by students.

“You don’t want [students] doing bureaucratic projects or window dressing,” he said.

One example of a district with a well-established service mandate is Rye, N.Y., where the 536-student Rye High School has a 60-hour requirement. Students there fulfill the mandate by such activities as working in the school office or operating a weekend “Safe Rides” service for party-going students.

A parent formally protested the Rye requirement early on, said Jane Mickatavage, community-service coordinator at the school. But State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol ruled last year on behalf of the school, and the program has gone smoothly since then, she said. The Bethlehem (Pa.) Area School District instituted its 60-hour mandate last year, only to have four parents file a federal lawsuit claiming the program is unconstitutional and should be made voluntary. (See Education Week, Oct. 3, 1990.)

Both sides are now awaiting a ruling by a judge in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, said Michael Levin, the district’s lawyer.

Meanwhile, the District of Columbia school board last month approved final rule-making and “Carnegie unit” status for a 1989 recommendation requiring 100 hours of service over three years.

Officials hope to test the program, which is part of a broader effort to infuse school life with values, in a handful of high schools beginning in January and have it take effect districtwide next fall.

Over the past two years, officials and lawyers have studied the experiences of other districts that offer service programs or have mandated service. Planners hope to avoid pitfalls and create a “composite” program, said Thomasina M. Portis, director of values/character education for the D.C. public schools.

The prolonged process has given parents time to get used to the idea, Ms. Portis noted, adding that students have backed the concept from the outset.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Youth-Service Mandate Splits Educators in Maryland