School service debate brought to lawmakers

January 28, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

After years of being asked to keep their paws off school curricula, Maryland lawmakers were begged yesterday to settle a dispute between state and local education officials over the state's community service requirement for high schoolers.

School officials from two rural counties, along with the state teachers union, urged senators to abolish Maryland's pioneering rule making students perform 75 hours of service to graduate. The rule takes effect with incoming ninth-graders this fall.

They claimed the program would be costly, take time away from other subjects and pose a hardship to students who don't have transportation to community activities.

"It should not be legal to coerce children to perform involuntary labor, even for the good of the community, if you cannot do that to adults," said Jane Stern, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

In her testimony to the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, she noted that judges force convicted criminals to perform community service as a punishment.

Educators usually don't want legislators to tell them what to teach in the classroom, Ms. Stern admitted, but the community service issue is different. In that case, she said, the state Board of Education ignored the desires of most of Maryland's 24 local school systems when it adopted the service rule last summer.

She found a supporter in a fellow teacher, Sen. Michael J. Collins of Baltimore County, who proclaimed, "The program is preposterous."

Those who support the community service rule, including the state's top education official and high school students from several counties, disagreed. They argued that students will become better citizens if they are forced to give back to their communities, such as by joining the Boy Scouts, volunteering at a soup kitchen or tutoring younger pupils.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer came to testify in favor of mandatory community service yesterday. But after waiting more than a hour for the panel to get through other items on its agenda, he left the committee room before the hearing began.

Perhaps the most effective lobbyists were the high school students who testified in favor of the new rule.

Jaime Sommers, a sophomore at Chesapeake High in Essex, said she has raised money for the homeless and visited nursing homes, among other things. "I have learned the meaning of the word 'compassion.' "

Ariane Sullivan, a fellow sophomore at Chesapeake High, said she enjoyed tutoring middle school students, delivering Meals on Wheels to elderly shut-ins and working with blind students. "I know student service is helping me expand my growth and maturity as well as develop more self-confidence," she told the committee.

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