With a burgeoning achievement gap for minorities and low-income
students, and American students performing poorly on international
tests, many agree that America needs significant educational reform.
For Center for American Progress (CAP) affiliates, at least, the front
lines of that reform start with the AmeriCorps.
One CAP panel speaker, Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, attributed large dropout rates to an “under-resourcing” of high schools, and argued that educators
already have proven techniques to fight our dropout crisis. AmeriCorps
can provide the “missing link” of person power, he argues.
Balfanz characterized at-risk students as quitting school either due to
life events, a lack of motivation, or behavioral problems. The students
who are frustrated with school and “stop seeing the point,” known as
“fade-outs,” constitute 75% of drop-outs, he argues. “The good news of
that is that type of dropout is highly predictable,” he said, adding
that “they’re literally saying help me, help me, help me, and [nobody’s
listening].” Balfanz argued that “they just need someone to work with
every day…to nurture them.”
CAP panelists including Kim Glodeck of EducationWorks, John Gomperts of Civic Ventures and Experience Corps, Jessica Graham of Citizens Schools, Stephanie Wu of City Year, and the Principal of Brookland Elementary School, Donna Pressley, all praised the AmeriCorps for its vital role in education, highlighting essential tasks performed by members such as
• conflict resolution or mediation,
• monitoring recess,
• and tutoring.
The AmeriCorps is run by the Corporation for National and Community Service and can be divided into three groups: AmeriCorps State and National (ASaN), AmeriCorps NCCC, and AmeriCorps VISTA, with the ASaN receiving a majority of funds. For fiscal year 2008, the
federal budget appropriated $374.4 million for these three AmeriCorps
programs, with $256.8 million going to ASaN.
A 2006 Washington Post article estimates that non-NCCC AmeriCorps members each cost the government
approximately $16,000, whereas as NCCC participants cost the government
$27,859 apiece. Much of the NCCC work consisted of “tutoring children,
building trails for national parks and building houses for low-income
families,” with only 7% of NCCC participants providing disaster relief.
In contrast, a 2005 Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) publication, quoting Aguirre International’s (AI) 1999 study, placed the average individual cost of AmeriCorps
members at $27,487. AI’s study estimates the “direct service benefits”
of AmeriCorps at $27,855 per member (a net benefit toward the outside
community of $368, or 1.34%) but concluded that the overall “benefits”
must factor in benefits to participants themselves, such as future
earnings from education, future earnings from training, and student
loan interest saved. With these factors included, Aguirre estimated the
benefits at $12,196 per full-time member.
However, it is useful to note that a 2004 longitudinal study (updated in 2007) commissioned by CNCS to measure the impact of
AmeriCorps revealed that “the majority of strong positive findings are
clustered in the areas of civic engagement and employment.”
Furthermore, the positive findings are generally concentrated in
attitudinal outcomes,” they continue. The study later states that
“there are no statistically significant effects of participation on education or teamwork and other life skills behavior outcomes” (emphasis added). In other words, many of these benefits are ephemeral, and do not necessarily translate into life skills.
These results also reinforce the perspective that the Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards of $4,725 serve simply as another federal subsidy. The CNCS study
concludes that “we find that in the short term, AmeriCorps
participation has no significant impacts on measures of educational attitudes or degree attainment”
(emphasis added). They urge readers to remember, however, that the
control group had an additional year to “pursue an education” while
AmeriCorps members were serving.
A 2004 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, GAO-02-225,
notes that (as of 2004) “more than half of the AmericCorps enrollment
growth has come from grants that provide participants no benefits other
than the education award.” They continue, “enrollments for these
positions increased from fewer than 6,500 in 1999 to almost 16,000 in
2001.” With overall AmeriCorps enrollment at 42,000 in 1999 and
approximately 59,000 in 2001, this marks a steady increase in the
percentage of AmeriCorps participants exclusively pursuing education
awards (15.5% to 27.1% over three years).
CAP speakers also
emphasized the use of AmeriCorps members as an “efficient” alternative
to hiring new teachers. However, the GAO report estimates that
approximately 5% (8,300) of AmeriCorps enrollments between 2000 and
2002 contained discrepancies, the most common of which was that the
database listed participants as “still serving while their
documentation showed they had exited the program without earning an
award.” More disturbingly, the GAO identified “more than 300
participants” between 1999 and 2002 using invalid or defunct Social
Security numbers, 170 of which “had numbers for persons listed as
Support for the AmeriCorps often takes a particularly partisan nature, and the CAP presentation was no different. Alan Khazei, co-founder of Be The Change, Inc., mentioned several presidents during his presentation, including Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan.
While implicitly supporting the liberal presidents’ policies, he
mentioned Reagan only to describe how the 1980’s had fostered public
perception of the government as a problem. He dismissed this
perspective, concluding “but now that’s over.”
visualized a “massive” increase in the number of AmeriCorps
participants, arguing for citizen service extending from kindergarten
through retirement, providing “meaningful opportunities to serve at
every life stage.” He blamed the initiative’s lukewarm success under
Clinton on the lack of a citizen movement. Otherwise, “just think of
where we’d be now. We’d be on our way to a million people and we’d be
on our way to a [different country],” Khazei said.