Youth Volunteer Service Taking Center Stage in Capital

By Lisa Jennings — February 22, 1989 9 min read

Washington--For the first time since the Johnson Administration a quarter-century ago, the notion of young people serving the country through volunteer work has captured a signficant amount of attention on Capitol Hill.

This week, Senators Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts were expected to join the growing list of legislators introducing bills that seek to encourage young Americans to undertake community service.

Six such bills have already been intro6duced in the 101st Congress this month. President Bush earlier focused public attention on the idea in his campaign proposal for a national foundation for youth service, and has signaled his continuing Presidential interest by creating the White House Office of National Service.

Senate leaders, also indicating interest, have scheduled hearings next month on the topic.

Leaders of service organizations from across the country--meeting in Washington last week to plot their strategy for the coming legislative debate--said they were delighted by the new wave of attention and support. The issue “is finally being taken seriously,” said one member of the informal coalition.

The flurry of legislative proposals that have been introduced so far share a common assumption: that the federal government has a role to play in providing organization and financial resources to support voluntarism among the young.

The current bills also unanimously reject the idea, sometimes suggested by national-service advocates in the past, that the new program should be mandatory--in effect, a universal “draft” of young people for miliinued on Page xx

Volunteer Service Has Taken Center Stage in


Senator Sam Nunn

Senator Edward M. KennedyContinued from Page 1

tary or civilian work.

Beyond those points of agreement, however, the proposals differ in ways that echo decades-old disagreements about the fundamental character of any national-service program.

Key questions that will have to be answered before a major new initiative could become law include:

Should volunteer programs offer incentives--in some proposals, hefty chunks of college-tuition aid--or should they rely exclusively on the desire for selfless service, with its nonmonetary rewards?

If there are incentives, should they be in addition to existing forms of federal funding, notably college-student aid, or should participation in a service program be a prerequisite for such assistance?

And, should volunteer initiatives stress efforts to encourage students at all levels to help others through school-based programs, or should the main focus be on getting high-school graduates to spend a year or two working full-time on community service?

Legislators also will have to contend with Mr. Bush’s call for a Youth Entering Service to America, or yes Foundation.

No details on the foundation are yet available, however. It is not clear whether the foundation will be an operating agency, a grant-making organization, or a program--or what its focus will be.

Nunn: Aid for Service

The national-service plan put forward by Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, has drawn the most attention and controversy so far because it would limit eligibility for college aid to students who had participated.

Under the Nunn plan, high-school graduates could receive vouchers valued at $10,000 to $12,000 each year for one or two years of military or civilian service, to be used for college tuition, job training, or a down payment on a home.

After a five-year phase-in period, service would be required for any student seeking federal aid. The bill would allow a number of exemptions from the service requirement.

The measure has drawn sharp criticism from several quarters, however. Despite Mr. Nunn’s influence in the Senate, Congressional aides do not expect it to be a major focus of legislative interest.

Critics of the proposal argue that it would force low-income students into service involuntarily in order to receive aid, while middle- and upper-income students would have the choice of opting out because they could afford college on their own.

“We see this as a significant flaw in the Nunn proposal,” said Roger Landrum, a co-director of Youth Service America, a Washington-based umbrella organization.

“We don’t want to battle with the higher-education community for that money,” he added.

“There is extreme reluctance to eliminate current social programs,” said an aide to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

An aide to Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan, who heads an Education and Labor Committee Democratic task force on the issue, agreed, saying, “The only consensus so far has been not to replace student-aid programs.”

Senator Pell’s bill, by contrast, would not change the existing structure of student-aid programs. Instead, it would create a national-service program and allow students to earn additional money for college by participating.

Pell Demonstration Bill

The legislation introduced by Mr. Pell would create only a demonstration program, funded at $30 million a year for five years, to test out the national-service idea. If successful, the initiative could later be expanded into a much larger national effort.

Under the plan, 16- to 25-year-old high-school graduates would work in community-service programs for 24 months, receiving a monthly stipend of $600.

After that period, volunteers would receive $250 per month plus tuition for 18 months in college or an apprenticeship program. Total assistance would not exceed $7,200 per year.

A second component of the bill would authorize $5 million to create a “Peace Corps rotc,” an undergraduate training program similar to the military Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Kennedy’s School-Based Focus

While supportive of many aspects of Senator Pell’s plan, youth-service organizations say it lacks an emphasis that is expected to predominate in Senator Kennedy’s bill: school-based programs for all students.

Although details of the bill were not available late last week, a staff member for Senator Kennedy said it would link service to education--from kindergarten through college--by setting up a program to create cooperative arrangements between schools and community agencies.

The program will not seek to “bribe” students into service through loans or stipends, according to the aide. “Students will do it because it will be a part of their life, a part of their education,” she said.

Youth-service advocates, who argue that school-based projects should be at the heart of any new volunteer program, worry because Senator Kennedy’s plan is the only one currently on the table to emphasize participation by all students, including the very young.

But because it will come from the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee and one of the most prominent and senior Democrats in the Senate, Mr. Kennedy’s plan is likely to occupy a central role in legislative work on the issue, they say.

The shape of a national-service bill will “ultimately come down to a compromise between President Bush and Senator Kennedy, who will play the power-broker role in the Senate,” predicted Frank Slobig, another co-director of ysa

The Labor panel will begin hearings on the issue March 9.

National Guard Model?

Another idea, put forward by Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, would base a national-service program on a part-time model similar to that used by the National Guard.

Under the plan, volunteers of any age would be able to perform service work in their neighborhoods for two weekends each month, and two weeks in the summer, over the course of three to six years.

For each year of service, participants would receive a $3,000 voucher good for college or job-training costs or for the purchase of a home. Existing student-aid programs would not be affected.

The program would be open to high-school dropouts and those who did not plan to attend college.

Still another proposal has been offered by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and Representative Leon E. Panetta, Democrat of California.

Based on legislation that was approved by a House subcommittee last year, their plan would create an American Conservation Corps, geared towards full-time environmental work, and a Youth Services Corps, which would provide other service employment.

Both programs would be open to youths ages 16 through 25 for full-time work, and 15 to 21 for part-time summer service. Participants would be paid half of the minimum wage while in the program, with some post-service educational scholarships, or employment vouchers, also available.

While open to all, the program would recruit economically disadvantaged youths.

The plan seems unlikely to satisfy youth-service advocates, who argue that it would put too much emphasis on job training and not enough on promoting the ethic of service.

Advocates Offer Guidelines

Organizations that favor a youth-service program already are busy preparing to influence the course of the legislative debate.

The group that met in Washington last week--known as the Working Group on Youth Service Policy--was convened in 1987 by the ysa

Among the 14 organizations in the working group are Campus Compact, City Volunteer Corps of New York, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

A prime goal of the group is to ensure that a variety of youth-service options be made available for all ages--beginning at the kindergarten level--to set a solid base for a lifetime of service.

“We really want to see service embedded in the school experience,"el10lMr. Landrum said.

John Briscoe, director of PennServe, a state agency in Pennsylvania that coordinates school-based service projects, argued that such programs have contributed to lower dropout rates, higher college-attendence rates, and improving student performance.

Full-time service programs, such as the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps, often employ a large number of high-school dropouts, who are able to complete their degrees by taking classes while in the program.

“It can be a real safety net,” Mr. Briscoe said.

James C. Kielsmeier, president of the National Youth Leadership Council, argued that school-based youth-service programs can have a significant impact on school reform.

“It really helps us rethink the place of young people in society,” he said. “Instead of being part of the problem in schools, young people can become part of the solution in their communities.”


The role of the action agency, which currently administers a variety of federal service programs, in any new volunteer program represents another question that will have to be resolved in the legislative process.

Senator Dodd’s proposal would make action responsible for the Youth Services Corps. But other bills either propose new agencies to administer the programs or do not specify how they would be run.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, action operates vista, a national full-time anti-poverty program for adults, as well as the Student Community Service Program, which offers a few small grants to schools and colleges for service projects, and various programs for senior citizens.

Agency officials say they are still not sure how action will fit in with the debate on national service.

Donna Alvarado, chairman of the agency, said in a statement that she strongly supported President Bush’s yes proposal and its focus on public-private partnerships and expanding service opportunties.

“We welcome any innovative ideas that complement programs already in existence, including action programs,” she said, and added that the agency’s position on any other legislative proposals “is still evolving.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as Youth Volunteer Service Taking Center Stage in Capital