Other Voices

National service? Fix schools first

Here’s an idea that periodically develops traction across the political spectrum: A one-year, non-mandatory national service program for Americans ages 18-28.

One focus for this notion is the Franklin Project, which grew out of discussions at the Aspen Institute in the summer of 2013.

The Project believes that America is “suffering from a deficit of citizenship and a general lack of connectedness.”

Its solution is a program that provides opportunities for young people to perform one year of full-time service that addresses community needs — “education, poverty alleviation, food security” — in exchange for a modest stipend, scholarships or help with student debt.

The Project’s Leadership Council is an impressive collection of CEOs, academics, foundation directors, politicians and public figures from the left and the right, from Madeleine Albright to Condoleezza Rice, from Barbara Bush to Tom Brokow.

I can’t work up enthusiasm for a service program. I’m skeptical about solving a problem by imposing an obligation on one group on another.

As far as I can tell, no one on the Franklin Project’s Leadership Council is 18-28 years of age.

If the idea of national service becomes a political issue — say, in the next presidential campaign — no doubt it will be used to appeal to and will find support among many older citizens who did not themselves practice enough citizenship to bother to vote in the recent mid-terms.

If our country suffers from a lack of civic engagement and shared experience, I wonder if there are other ways of addressing the problem besides asking the young, who didn’t create the problem, to devote a low-paid year of their lives to it.

No institution embodied the divisiveness and “lack of connectedness” of American life more than segregated public schools between the Civil War and the mid-60s.

And apart from the military, no institution has done more to connect and provide a common experience for all Americans, regardless of race or economic status, than integrated, post-civil rights era public schools.

Yet even though we’ve always known how to create and maintain very good public schools, we have failed to provide common, equivalent experiences for all students.

Public schools in Texas, for example, reflect local tax bases. Despite efforts to develop funding equity among school districts, it’s clear that not all schools provide identical experiences for their students. Rich neighborhoods have better schools than poor ones.

If we want to connect students with our culture, to make them feel part of a larger enterprise, why not provide them with an engaging, well-resourced public education that embodies a common experience, identical in every respect regardless of race or economic status?

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. jcrisp@delmar.edu