Hundreds of advocates for AmeriCorps gathered on Capitol Hill last week seeking $100 million in federal money to bail out programs aided by the national service corps that have seen their budgets drastically reduced.
Topping off a summer-long push for support, Voices for AmeriCorps called together 670 federal, state, and local politicians, policymakers, corporate executives, youth-group leaders, college professors, teachers, principals, and former AmeriCorps members for 100 consecutive hours of speeches that took place over four days in congressional hallways and office buildings.
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., David Gergen, the editor-at-large of U.S. News and World Report, and the pop-rock band the Goo Goo Dolls were among those who took part in the bipartisan event.
Still, the fate of thousands of AmeriCorps-supported programs, including after-school, mentoring, and tutoring services, remained uncertain late last week. Some have already shut down.
The Senate approved $100 million in supplemental spending for AmeriCorps by a 71-21 vote, but the Republican leadership in the House struck down the appropriation because of recent financial mismanagement in the agency that oversees AmeriCorps.
“My opposition ... comes down to an issue of accountability,” said Rep. Jim Walsh R-N.Y., who is the chairman of the subcommittee that handles AmeriCorps funding.
Following accounting irregularities at the Corporation for National and Community Service, the program’s parent agency, Congress appropriated only enough money to support 30,000 new members who start this month.
As a result, nonprofit organizations, many of which directly support K-12 education, have had to cut back or discontinue services because they no longer have AmeriCorps members on staff.
“It’s devastating,” said Alan Khazei, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of City Year, a youth- service organization based in Boston that helps inner-city students through programs that focus on literacy, math, violence prevention, and self- esteem.
Heeding the Call
For each of the past five years, City Year has had more than 1,000 AmeriCorps members working in its programs, Mr. Khazei said. The number has been more than halved this year, he said, which means City Year will be able to provide services to only 50,000 children.
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., takes his turn during the 28th hour of the vigil in support of restoring funds to AmeriCorps.
The situation at City Year is not uncommon. Funding for programs in almost every state has been cut as a result of financial problems at the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Problems started to surface last fall, after the corporation experienced an unprecedented surge in applications for AmeriCorps. That groundswell was attributed to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and President Bush’s call for every American to serve the community in his State of the Union Address four months later.
In response, the federal agency approved applications for 70,000 members, 20,000 more than the trust could afford. Upon realizing their error, corporation officials halted enrollments for all but 50,000 members, said Sandy Scott, an agency spokesman.
Those extra 20,000 memberships had to be carried over into fiscal 2003. Congress capped the enrollment figure at 50,000, including the 20,000 from 2002, a move that essentially dropped the number of new members the agency could enroll by 20,000.
Both the White House Office of Management and Budget, and the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, examined the corporation’s financial decisions.
The OMB and the GAO disagreed on how the corporation should determine how much money to appropriate for each AmeriCorps member, a dispute that was solved with the Strengthen AmeriCorps Programs Act. The measure, passed in July, adopts the OMB recommendations.
That legislation clearly defines the corporation’s funding formula and allows for annual independent audits of the agency.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration, which has long praised AmeriCorps, a Clinton administration initiative, changed the top leadership at the corporation. It replaced Leslie Lenkowsky, a Bush appointee and a former professor of public policy at Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis, with David Eisner, a former executive with AOL/Time Warner.
Hope remains that Congress will appropriate $100 million in supplemental spending for the 20,000 slots that were cut, Mr. Scott said. Both chambers would have to agree to add that allotment to a bill that was still in a House-Senate conference committee late last week.
Next year is already shaping up to be much better for AmeriCorps. President Bush has said he wants the program to grow to 75,000 members in 2004. The House recently included enough funding for 55,000 AmeriCorps members in its appropriation for fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1. The appropriations bill for 2004 has not come up in the Senate, which has overwhelmingly supported AmeriCorps in the past.
Still, the cuts from this year sting.
Feeling the Squeeze
Though AmeriCorps members can choose to work in a variety of community-based organizations, such as homeless shelters, conservation groups, or neighborhood crime-watch campaigns, more than half work directly with K-12 education, according to Mr. Scott.
Through the New York City-based Teach For America, for example, AmeriCorps members teach in schools with large numbers of students who are deemed at risk for academic failure.
Full-time participants sign up for the AmeriCorps program for two years. They each receive an education award of $4,725, which must be used within seven years to pay college tuition or loans, and a living stipend of up to $9,300 a year, which AmeriCorps and local communities provide.
The loss of AmeriCorps workers in schools comes at a particularly difficult time, considering the big state budget cuts many administrators are facing this year, said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals.
“We’re being squeezed from all different angles,” he said. Because part of an AmeriCorps member’s duties is to recruit volunteers, schools that had AmeriCorps workers will likely see a decrease in their volunteers overall, Mr. Ferrandino predicted.
Charles Shelan, the executive director of the Olympia, Wash.-based nonprofit organization Community Youth Services, recently found out he will no longer have any of his 44 AmeriCorps workers for the region. “That means that services to 38 schools and nonprofits in three counties are going to be severed immediately,” he said.
AmeriCorps members in those schools worked as reading tutors, organized homework clubs, helped with playground supervision, and staffed after-school programs, he said.
“It is about like an earthquake, really, in our community,” Mr. Shelan said of the loss.
After-school programs have been especially hard hit; at least a third of them nationwide use AmeriCorps workers, said Judy Samuelson, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Some programs “have lost all of their volunteers, so they will have to reduce services,” she said. Others, she added, have closed down permanently.
If there’s been a “silver lining,” it’s the outpouring of support, said City Year’s Mr. Khazei. “It has been extraordinary ... to see this movement coming together in such a powerful way.”