How about majoring in serving America?

January 27, 2009|By DAN RODRICKS

You've got your U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, U.S. Military Academy at West Point, U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, and your U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. Those, my fellow Americans, are our national service academies.

Now consider one more: the U.S. Public Service Academy - same model, except no weapons, no boats and, as far as I know, no buzz cuts on the first day of school.

The USPSA. This is not a reality, of course. It's just an idea, the brainchild of two public-spirited guys, 30-something veterans of Teach For America who think the country - and Barack Obama - could make a bold and lasting statement about our national priorities by establishing such an institution.

Chris Myers Asch and his buddy, Shawn Raymond, came up with the USPSA. They've established a nonprofit in Washington to promote the idea and seem to be effective in doing so. They've taken it to Congress and had several senators, including Maryland's, endorse it. They are making another push this year and are more optimistic about getting funds for the USPSA with Obama in the White House.

"In a nutshell," Asch says, "we want to build a civilian counterpart to the military service academies. The Public Service Academy would be a four-year, federally subsidized college modeled on the military academies but focused on public service. Students would get a free undergraduate education, following a liberal arts curriculum focused on service and leadership. In return, they would be required to serve for five years in public sector jobs following graduation. They would be placed in areas of critical need and positions of strategic importance at the local, state and federal levels."

Part of the idea, says Asch, is to present public service as a noble undertaking to a new generation that has grown up with the message that government is a problem, not a solution. For nearly three decades, men and women with brains and talent have been advised to avoid government careers and seek fortune and prestige in the private sector. As a result, Asch believes, there has been a brain drain that has resulted in less effective government and a lost sense of selfless service as a part of citizenship. Asch comes from a public service family - his dad in the U.S. Foreign Service, his mom a civilian doctor with the Army. He volunteered for Teach For America and spent three years teaching fifth- and sixth-graders at a school in Sunflower, Miss., a town with a population of 800. Raymond was his roommate in those years. After Teach For America, they created the nonprofit Sunflower County Freedom Project to help kids from rural Mississippi get into college. They tutored students, gave them college guidance, took them on campus visits - anything to encourage boys and girls toward higher education. At its peak, they served about 50 kids.

In 2006, Asch and Raymond decided to get serious about this national public service academy idea.

Asch says the annual cost of the USPSA would be $205 million. Once the campus is established, about 5,000 students would be enrolled, selected through the same nominating process the service academies use. They would get a free education in return for five years of public service in sectors where they would be needed most - education, for instance, or international affairs, emergency management, law enforcement. For its investment, the nation would get not only thousands of years of public service from the academy's graduates, but also an annual crop of Americans who regard government as a way to make a difference, not just a salary and pension.

Last year, Asch got an authorization bill into both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. He says 24 senators, including Maryland's Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, and 123 representatives, including Elijah Cummings, John Sarbanes and Dutch Ruppersberger, signed on as co-sponsors. (So did former Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, now Obama's chief of staff.) Asch claims support of many congressional leaders, with more signing on; he expects the plan to be reintroduced again next month. He says his idea has been endorsed by "70 college presidents and three former superintendents of West Point."

Resistance, he says, comes from "elite private colleges" that oppose federal funding of the USPSA and want the money for scholarships. But, Asch argues, the USPSA would be a better deal for students and taxpayers.

President Obama is proposing an expansion of AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. He also wants to give college students a $4,000 annual tax credit for 100 hours of public service a year.

Asch supports the AmeriCorps and Peace Corps expansions, but he sees problems with the tax credit proposal.

"The definition of 'service' is too broad," he says. "The $4,000 for 100 hours equals $40 an hour, which means just about every kid is going to scheme to apply for the money; that will be a logistical nightmare - and an expensive one, to boot. And if students suddenly have access to $4,000 more in college money, colleges will react as they have throughout the past generation: by raising tuition."

Plus, he says, the tax credit for college kids is not as bold or as potentially enduring as what he has in mind.

"Bill Clinton had AmeriCorps, and John Kennedy had the Peace Corps," Asch says. "What's going to be Barack Obama's legacy [on public service]? Tax credits?"

Establishment of the United States Public Service Academy sounds a whole lot better.

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