Taking a Chance on Student Service

January 27, 1993

The State Department of Education didn't do a masterful job selling the student service requirement for graduation to the public.

It didn't sense that opposition to the program, which will require students to help their schools and community, would fester for a year. It seemed caught off-guard when a few legislators vowed to kill the program -- a threat that continues with a Senate committee hearing this afternoon.

The state also got off on the wrong foot by packaging the plan as a way to encourage volunteerism. "Mandatory volunteerism!" the critics shouted; the phrase became their all-purpose put-down.

Yet we remain strongly supportive of the student service program. Beginning next fall, for the graduating class of 1997, students will have to perform 75 hours of service to graduate. The service can range from serving meals at a soup kitchen to tutoring a fellow student; the individual school systems can structure the programs as they like, although they would make a mockery of the effort if they turn their students into teacher aids or janitor apprentices to mindlessly fill the requirement.

For a nation celebrating political change and decrying a slippage in schools and a lack of values, it is surprising to see the political adversaries that have joined in fighting the community-service requirement: conservatives and liberals; school boards and teachers; city, country and suburb.

Some opponents have decried the proposal as another unfunded mandate from on high. In fact, the state distributed $250,000 to local schools to help them set up their programs. As for the on-going costs, school officials who believe in community service say it will cost little; school systems that consider it a headache say it will cost millions.

Opponents also are raising the ever-convenient "liability" roadblock. But program organizers said schools could limit students to helping at social service agencies that carry liability coverage.

The only point of agreement seems to be that the legislature should not micro-manage education. State legislators don't dictate how many years of English or algebra are appropriate. They shouldn't be deciding this matter, either.

Some Maryland public schools have run a student service course for years: the Board of Education approved it as an elective in 1985. But it's only offered in about half of the state's high schools.

In his inaugural address, President Clinton challenged "a new generation of young Americans to a season of service." This initiative puts Maryland in the forefront of the nation. It's a venture that doesn't call for more bricks-and-mortar spending yet it could have a major impact on young people at a comparatively small cost.

It's the kind of gamble Maryland should be embracing.

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