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Foes want to short-circuit AmeriCorps

Jane Eisner Philadelphia Inquirer

This was to be a historic year for AmeriCorps, the decade-old national service program whose members tutor needy children, clean up public parks, build houses and provide homeland security in return for a modest stipend and benefits. This was the year the agency would arise, phoenix-like, from its recent political battles with new funding and renewed support.

A record appropriation from Congress! A record number of members!

Hold the champagne.

The wily opponents of AmeriCorps, beaten on the floor of Congress and in the bright light of public opinion, are sneaking in the back door to push for changes in the way the agency operates that would cripple its character and mission. Led by Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, they are demanding major changes in the rules and regulations governing how AmeriCorps distributes its funds and to whom — making demands so outrageous that even some in their own party are voicing concern.

They are hoping no one is noticing. Too bad, Mr. DeLay. We are.

“We won a big victory to get an increase in funding,” said Alan Khazei, co-founder and director of City Year, a respected AmeriCorps organization. “But if all these rules change, at what price?”

It seems AmeriCorps and its parent, the Corporation for National and Community Service, can’t do enough to mollify their critics. When the agency was charged with “mismanagement” of funds last year, stemming largely from an increased number of Americans heeding the president’s call to service after the 2001 terrorist attacks, it was nearly crippled by punishing funding cuts. The requisite heads rolled.

Now the corporation has a new leader, David Eisner (no relation), and the wherewithal to fund 75,000 members through direct grants to agencies and through resources it directs to states, who then distribute money as they see fit through a competitive process. Devoting a year of your life to AmeriCorps will earn you a stipend of just under $10,000, health insurance, child-care costs and a $4,725 education grant. And, of course, the privilege of serving your country.

DeLay and his cohorts think that is way too much for Washington to support. Somehow they want to offer health care based only on financial need — though how anyone earning less than 10 grand a year could fail to be eligible eludes me. They want to reduce federal support for the measly living stipend and for child-care expenses, expecting that nonprofits and foundations will pick up the tab. And they want to push more AmeriCorps members into part-time positions.

Tutor a kid part-time, and you’ll get part-time results. You’ll essentially get half the return. Abundant studies show this. Somehow that doesn’t bother the anti-AmeriCorps bunch.

Worse, they want to place a time limit on organizations receiving AmeriCorps funds — which would arbitrarily cut off the largest, most effective programs nationwide such as City Year, Teach for America and Habitat for Humanity. Can you imagine another area where the recipients of federal contracts are prohibited from reapplying after, say, five or 10 years? Halliburton would be out of business.

Even Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania’s deeply conservative Republican, has trouble with that demand. “These successful programs should have the opportunity to continue to compete to make ongoing contributions to our communities,” he wrote in a letter to David Eisner last week.

Fortunately, AmeriCorps supporters learned a painful lesson during last year’s budgeting fiasco, and now they are organized and motivated. A near-death experience can have that effect.

Voices like Santorum’s must be heard and amplified before the corporation sends its proposed rules to the Office of Management and Budget, which could happen as early as this week. As the senator wrote, time limits would choke off success.

It’s a fine way to emasculate a worthy endeavor. Sadly, it’s becoming a national tradition. Back in 1995, Steven Waldman published “The Bill,” a fascinating case study of the white-water ride accorded by Congress to Bill Clinton’s National Service Bill. Waldman concluded: “A program that tapped into the American people’s best impulses was almost killed by Washington’s worst.”

Almost, again.

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