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Need for Proposed U.S. Public Service Academy Debated

By Scott J. Cech — January 11, 2008 3 min read
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George Washington couldn’t make it happen. Nor could Thomas Jefferson. But a self-described “nobody” named Chris Myers Asch is giving the idea of a national public-service university another shot.

As envisioned by Mr. Asch, a Teach For America veteran who’s leading the effort to finance and build what he’s calling the U.S. Public Service Academy, it would be patterned after the nation’s military academies, offering a free, four-year degree to students in exchange for five years of postgraduate work in the public sector.

Graduates could work in local, state, or federal government, in public schools or police departments, or in other nonprofit, public-service-oriented organizations.

“This is a national need,” Mr. Asch said in an interview, citing a 2001 Congressional Budget Office report warning of potential personnel shortages stemming from “the aging of the federal workforce.” A dramatic rise in the amount of debt with which college students now graduate is making government service an increasingly unattractive career option, he added.

“We need the best and brightest,” Mr. Asch said.“We need a new generation of young people to commit themselves to public service.”

The proposal calls for a college of about 5,100 students—most nominated by lawmakers, as is the case with the military-service academies—who would major in liberal arts fields, with a focus on public service and leadership.

Students would be required to spend summers working as interns with emergency-response teams, the military, and charitable nonprofit organizations. Foreign-languange fluency and a minimum eight-week term of study abroad would also be mandatory.

School Called ‘Redundant’

As yet, the academy exists only on paper, and that’s the only place it might ever exist, to judge by the firing-squad reception the idea got from a panel of experts convened to discuss it this week at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

“This is a bad idea, terribly well advocated,” was the assessment of Stephen J. Trachtenberg, a president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University, who called the idea “an answer in search of a problem” and “redundant.”

“Harvard’s got the Kennedy School, Syracuse’s got the Maxwell School … and GW, bless it, has the Trachtenberg School,” said Mr. Trachtenberg, referring to Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.; Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, N.Y.; and his namesake Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University here.

“The fact of the matter is, we can buy people with training” from existing schools, he argued.

Seconding that view, Philip I. Levy, an AEI resident scholar, cited the academy’s proposed $205 million annual price tag, 80 percent of which would be taxpayer-funded. “One could do something like a scholarship program that would meet many of these needs and be much less expensive,” he said.

Still, the idea may stand a better chance than it has in centuries past. Bills have been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, where it is sponsored by Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Mr. Asch said 16 senators and 93 House members have signed on as co-sponsors, and that Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also has endorsed the idea.

“In the midst of a campaign season, we think that there’s ample room for the candidates to embrace this idea in a new administration,” Mr. Asch said.

Panelist John Bridgeland, the chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based firm that advises on public policy, called Mr. Asch “a modern George Washington,” for his idea. Even Mr. Bridgeland, though, suggested that the idea of a brick-and-mortar academy be scrapped in favor of a consortium of existing public-service programs.

But Mr. Asch, who was also on the panel, said a stand-alone academy was necessary to inspire esprit de corps among its students, and “to make public service cool again.”

“When you set foot at West Point or Annapolis, you know you’re somewhere different,” he said, referring to the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. “We want to do the same thing for public service.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2008 edition of Education Week

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