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Calling for the 'Citizens Corps,' to Serve Society and Serve Selves

May 29, 1988|Cynthia Parsons | Cynthia Parsons is the coordinator of SerVermont and the author of "Seeds: Some Good Ways to Improve Our Schools."

CHESTER, VT. — We've been here before: high- level political discussions about rewarding those Americans who do civilian service in a manner comparable to the pay and benefits--including the GI Bill--given to those who do military service.

This time, however, there is real evidence of a growing interest in student community service at the grade school as well as collegiate levels, and in the expansion of youth corps service programs nationwide.

Three years ago, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a bill to establish an American Conservation Corps supporting non-military conservation work performed during summertime by 15 to 21-year-olds, and year-round by 16 to 25-year-olds. President Reagan vetoed it.

A similar bill has now been introduced in Congress by Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.). What would George Bush or Michael S. Dukakis do should such a bill come to the President's desk in 1989? Perhaps sign it. Both men have spoken about citizen duty, and national service is on this year's political agenda.

One of the organizations putting it there is the Democratic Leadership Council, headed by Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. The DLC recommends a "citizen corps" whose members would not only help with conservation needs but also serve in schools, hospitals, day care programs, senior citizen centers, prisons and police departments--or, as some citizens now serve for a time, in the military.

In addition to modest pay levels for two years of service, the young people would receive lump-sum payments of $20,000 for civilian service and $24,000 for military service, to be applied toward job training, higher education or as a down-payment on a house.

Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) is sponsoring a bill designed to provide matching federal grants to states and localities with full-time youth service programs. Another bill, introduced by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), authorizes funding for state authorities to administer youth service programs, with a GI Bill-like payoff at the end of two years of civilian service. Pell calls for a pilot program at a cost of $30 million a year.

Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) has introduced a bill similar to one he sponsored in 1985, creating a commission to carry out a study of national service. Some Washington observers think this has the best chance; it leaves the subject open and calls for a spending level of only about $3 million.

There's one program now, still young and thin, but with mammoth potential. Last spring, in a Times Opinion article, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, then-president of Notre Dame University, suggested a Peace Corps preparatory program on campuses, with the same sort of institutional support enjoyed by the military's reserve officer training programs.

Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., home of the nation's oldest private military college, took up the challenge this school year. Norwich has implemented a Peace Corps Preparatory Program (PCPP) and has already provided technical assistance to 14 other colleges considering such a major in civilian service.

At Norwich, those who elect the PCPP's curriculum receive appropriate classroom instruction in Third World concerns and summer community service work within the United States and overseas. Benefits include partial forgiveness of National Direct Student Loans (30%, 50% or 70% upon completion of two, three or four years in the Peace Corps).

If a private military college can adjust requirements and responsibilities to prepare its students for service in the Peace Corps, the great liberal arts institutions should have little trouble implementing such a program.

Meanwhile, at the junior and senior high school levels there appears to be a serious and growing interest in high-quality student community service.

In just two years, the number of Vermont secondary schools involving students in community service has risen from 20% to 80%. And more than half of those programs combine service work with academic instruction.

Many national organizations, including the Education Commission of the States, are making major commitments of support to national service, youth service and student community service.

The aspirations of those groups go beyond trying to meet the weight of human need, both in the United States and the world. There is the matter of teaching the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. We owe that to our young people; we owe that to our country.

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