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Looming Membership Cuts in AmeriCorps Spark Outcry

By Michelle Galley — July 09, 2003 3 min read
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In a move that has left nonprofit groups reeling and stirred corporate leaders and liberal Democrats alike to demand action from the White House, the national-service program AmeriCorps has announced deep cuts in the number of members it will enroll this year.

Unless more money is allocated to the program, AmeriCorps will be able to pay for only 30,000 new members—the term used for the paid “volunteers” in the program—fewer than half the 75,000 President Bush called for in his 2004 budget proposal.

Those workers, some of whom serve as tutors, instructors, or support personnel in schools, are vital to both small, local groups and massive national organizations, backers of the program say.

Programs supported by the 10-year-old AmeriCorps initiative “are finding their funding and slots slashed dramatically,” said Kevin Huffman, the vice president of development and general counsel for Teach For America, a national organization, supported in part by AmeriCorps, that sends recent college graduates to teach in hard- pressed urban and rural classrooms.

In an effort to bail out the program this year, about 200 business leaders last month asked Congress for an emergency appropriation of $200 million to bolster enrollment.

Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which oversees AmeriCorps, wrote a letter to the president last month asking him to request what Mr. Miller called “full funding” for the program. President Bush, who earlier this year called on all Americans to dedicate 4,000 hours over their lifetimes to public service, has so far remained silent on the situation facing AmeriCorps.

To put more pressure on the White House and raise awareness of the issue, advocates have launched a Web site, www.saveAmeriCorps.org, and planned to stage a rally on July 4, after deadline for this issue of Education Week.

AmeriCorps members, who also perform such jobs as building houses and helping victims of natural disasters, are given stipends of up to $4,725 that can be used to pay off existing student loans or help support future higher education.

The announced membership cuts are the result of a long-running battle—involving the Corporation for National and Community Service, the government agency that oversees AmeriCorps; the White House Office of Management and Budget; and Congress’ General Accounting Office—over how much money the corporation needs to keep in the trust fund dedicated to AmeriCorps to cover the stipends.

Hopes for Relief

Further complicating matters is a rollover in members from last year, when the corporation enrolled 20,000 more workers than it could afford and then froze consideration of new membership applications, pending more funding from Congress.

That enrollment fumble left fewer positions available this year, said Mr. Huffman, and created a huge strain for groups that rely on those workers.

Even though more slots for new members should be available in 2004, the damage will have already been done, Mr. Huffman said. “It is not possible to absorb a massive cut in one year and go back to normal the next,” he said. “It is not going to suddenly, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes.”

But there is still hope that such deep cuts will not need to be made. Officials are trying to “find ways to increase opportunities for Americans to serve,” said Sandy Scott, a spokesman for the Corporation for National and Community Service.

At a Boston middle school, the verdict is still out on what effect the cuts would have, said Edward Cook, the principal of the Umana Barnes School.

The 10 AmeriCorps members at the 1,000-student school have done more than just run what Mr. Cook says is a top- notch after-school program for students who have recently immigrated to the United States. They have given him hope, Mr. Cook says.

“Sometimes you wonder if there is anyone else coming up behind you” to take the reins, he said. “It has encouraged me and given me energy in my own work.”

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