Federal lawmakers and the president are mulling plans to expand dramatically the AmeriCorps national-service program, in part to use more recruits in homeland-security roles.
President Bush has announced plans to use 20,000 members of AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps, its counterpart group for older Americans, to support public-safety, health, and disaster-preparedness efforts in local communities over the next year.
And a new, bipartisan plan sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R- Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., would expand the number of AmeriCorps participants, currently about 50,000, to 250,000 by 2010. About 100,000 of the new members would work on projects under the auspices of the recently created Office of Homeland Security. The senators estimate the cost of the expansion over 10 years would be $26 billion.
The legislation would also offer incentives for short-term military service by setting up a new “18-18-18" program: New recruits would spend 18 months on active duty, serve 18 months on reserve duty, and receive $18,000 stipends at the end of their service.
Meanwhile, the number of inquiries from those interested in the programs offered by the Corporation for National Service, which administers AmeriCorps and other service initiatives, has increased by almost 30 percent since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, from 1,100 each week to 1,400. Most of its programs have fairly competitive admissions, and its most competitive program has consistently been disaster relief, agency officials say.
“I don’t think it’s any clearer today than what I discovered a long time ago: Young Americans want to serve their country,” Sen. McCain said at a press conference held earlier this month to announce the proposed legislation.
An expansion of AmeriCorps could foster a new consciousness of and interest in public-service fields, particularly for Americans ages 18 to 24, proponents of the idea say. Charles Moskos, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., believes community involvement by college students, particularly women, in programs such as AmeriCorps will increase.
“For civilian tasks like AmeriCorps, you’re going to find a lot of students interested in this,” said Mr. Moskos, who has advocated such programs as well as mandatory service. “But to make this effective, you have to have full-time performers with training.”
President Bush said in a Nov. 8 speech in Atlanta that he had witnessed a renewed interest in community service and volunteerism. Although he has been skeptical of the AmeriCorps program in the past, he now has formed a task force to determine where AmeriCorps members and other volunteers could best channel their efforts.
Mr. Bush also named a new director of AmeriCorps on Nov. 9. Rosie K. Mauk, a fellow Texan and the chairwoman of the American Association of State Service Commissions, worked for Mr. Bush on several service projects and state boards when he was the governor of Texas.
AmeriCorps members work with volunteer and nonprofit groups to perform jobs such as mentoring, building homes, helping victims of natural disasters, and serving the elderly. Its top area of service is working with children, usually in educational settings, such as tutoring, literacy, and after-school programs.
AmeriCorps members are paid stipends of up to $4,725 and receive health insurance and funds to cover living expenses.
AmeriCorps has had a rocky history. Stemming from a high-profile proposal in President Clinton’s 1992 campaign, the Corporation for National Service was founded in 1993 to administer AmeriCorps and other national-service programs. The programs have often come under fire from some Republicans, who deem them ineffective and question the agency’s management practices.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., an outspoken agency critic, said he and other members of Congress last month met with the corporation’s new directors and were assured financial management was improving.
He said any expansion of AmeriCorps into domestic-security areas would have to be carefully administered.
“It’s one thing to have AmeriCorps members working with established volunteer and nonprofit organizations,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “It’s a whole other thing to have them be the responders to terrorist attacks.”
Leslie Lenkowsky, the chief executive officer of the corporation, said members had been placed in New York City to help with post-terrorism relief efforts there, such as sorting and distributing food and working with the American Red Cross. But more are needed for activities including public-health educational campaigns, clerical aid for law-enforcement officials, and coordinating services for bereaved families, he said. Under the McCain-Bayh proposal, AmeriCorps officials would work with the Office of Homeland Security to determine needs. Sen. McCain said he envisions activities such as providing security around government buildings, city reservoirs, and other facilities.
For instance, he said, Capitol Hill police officers, who have been working 12-hour shifts since Sept. 11, need relief. He suggested AmeriCorps members could do low-level security and administrative work, freeing up more shift time for police officers to guard the Capitol facilities. Others could be trained to respond to bioterrorism and be on call, he said.
The expansion would also affect schools. Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., who is a sponsor of the House counterpart bill, said he envisions more AmeriCorps members teaching in rural areas with severe teacher shortages, and more senior citizens recruited to become mentors and tutors.
Sens. McCain and Bayh said there was bipartisan momentum for the bill, which they hope Congress will have cleared for the president’s signature by early next year.
The two senators argue that their plan would save millions of federal dollars for homeland security, because it is less expensive to hire and train AmeriCorps members than regular employees.
A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Proposal Would Expand AmeriCorps For Security Role