Education: Lobbying School

Mandatory community-service programs are turning schoolchildren into lobbyists.


The fourth-, fifth-,and sixth-grade stu dents in Barbara Lewis's classroom do not spend all of their time in school struggling with dividing fractions and memorizing spelling words; some of their school time is taken up fighting city hall. These children, from some of the poorest families in Salt Lake City, are "responsible" for the clean-up of a hazardous waste site, the planting of hundreds of trees, and the passage of seven new laws. In her book, The Kids' Guide to Social Action, Lewis tells children that "solving social problems will bring excitement and suspense into your life. Instead of reading textbooks and memorizing what others have done, you'll create your own history with the actions you take."

Across the country, schools are adding a new subject to the curriculum–political activism. While Lewis's students receive grades in her class for their political activities, scores of school districts have set up programs that require all students to perform community service before they graduate. Parents and school-board members may believe these programs are meant to develop in otherwise apathetic students an ethic of voluntarism and the habit of serving their communities. But many of those who have designed and administered student service see their mission much differently; they want to train a corps of young political activists.

Community-service programs, which are common in many private schools, have been adopted by some 500 public school districts in the United States. Atlanta, Detroit, and the District of Columbia are among the major school districts that require community service. In many areas, officials barely keep track of the students' activities. Maryland, however, requires student service as a condition of graduation–the only state to do so. With nearly 200,000 students enrolled in public high schools, Maryland's service program is easily the largest in the nation.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former president of the Maryland Student Service Alliance (MSSA), which administers the program for Maryland, considers community-service programs laboratories for teaching democratic values. Townsend, who now works for the Clinton administration, told the Associated Press, "You have to do a lab for science; think of this as a lab for citizenship."

Students who participate in service programs are not simply talking to lonely and forgotten nursing-home residents or wading in trash-filled creeks hauling out old tires. They are being taught that to solve the problems in their communities they have to lobby their state senator, pass out petitions, or demonstrate in front of the county courthouse.

Maryland is the self-proclaimed leader in this new movement, known as "service learning." The MSSA defines service learning as "making a difference through actions of citizenship, by participating in advocacy projects to assist the disenfranchised or to correct an injustice through petitioning, making presentations, conducting surveys, and presenting results." Margaret A. O'Neill, the current head of MSSA, cannot say exactly what the definition means. She declines to state what constitutes "correcting an injustice." O'Neill says such terms have to be defined by individual communities.

The MSSA's program is not community service in any traditional sense. The alliance states in its materials that "the term community service carries connotations of restitution for committing a non-violent crime." (One joke circulating around the state asks, "What do criminals and Maryland high-school seniors have in common?" Answer: "They both get out by doing community service.") The MSSA also says, "Volunteering refers to a person demonstrating good will to offer time and energy to address a need, rather than a structured learning experience." Making service part of the school curriculum means making it more than simply helping others. It means teaching students something, in this case a lesson about citizenship. And that requires some political content.

The model for service learning in Maryland and in most of the educational literature consists of three elements: preparation, action, and reflection. First, says O'Neill, students are asked what they believe the community's problems are. In the curriculum materials Maryland has developed, the most commonly mentioned issues are senior citizens, people living in poverty, and the environment. O'Neill says these are the issues that come up "when teachers tell us what they care the most about."

After the issues are chosen, the students "analyze" them. Beverly Durham, a teacher at Wicomico High School in Salisbury, Maryland, describes student service in a video prepared by the MSSA: "The first part of the year, the students study the issues of disability, handicap-ism, age-ism, abject poverty, conservation and ecology, and health-care issues. They do this by having community people come into the classroom, provide round-table discussions, pass out pamphlets. It is a stimulus and response, question and answer period."

Finally, the students develop and perform a service project, usually with the guidance of an "expert," either a community activist or a government employee. Afterwards, MSSA materials instruct, "A student may decide to take civic action or advocacy." MSSA states, "This involves working to eliminate the cause of the problem and to inform the public about the issues involved." Teaching materials suggest that "this could range from writing a letter to the editor, to lobbying for a cause, to engaging in a political campaign."

Hope Shannon, a teacher at Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County and the county school system's designated fellow in student service, has her students working on homelessness, trying to persuade state and local government officials to eliminate the problem. Last year, her students collected poems, essays, photos, and drawings about homelessness and assembled them into a pamphlet that they sent to members of the Maryland legislature.

In the pamphlet's introduction, the student editor said, "We believe homelessness is a problem that those higher up in government should try to solve instead of just bandaging." Shannon says her students wanted to give homeless persons more than such temporary forms of relief as soup and blankets. So the students donated the $250 they raised from the sale of the pamphlets to Action for the Homeless, a group that lobbies the legislature to fund programs on homelessness. Shannon says they chose this group specifically because of its lobbying efforts.

The principal educational arguments advanced by proponents of student service are that the requirement motivates students and leaves them feeling that their education is relevant. Classroom teachers, however, aren't that passionate about the programs. A June 1991 Phi Delta Kappan article by Dan Conrad and Diane Hedin reported that "much of the initiative for school-based service comes from policy makers and politicians–not educators." Robert Moore, a spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "This [the Maryland program] is a feel-good program for politicians."

Last year, the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., represented parents and students who opposed the community-service requirement for high-school students in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The students challenged the requirement as a violation of the right to be free of coerced affirmance of belief under the First Amendment and the 13th Amendment's prohibition of involuntary servitude. The suit was unsuccessful in the lower courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the institute's appeal.

Still, the Bethehem program underscores the implicit political nature of some community-service requirements. All Bethlehem students must perform 60 hours of unpaid service, choosing from a list of more than 70 organizations approved by the school district. Along with such charitable establishments as the Cedarbrook Nursing Home, the district includes Planned Parenthood of Northeastern Pennsylvania and the Interfaith Peace Resource Council on its approved list. Although these groups do provide community services, they also seek to advance political agendas: Planned Parenthood lobbies for tax-subsidized abortions; the Interfaith Peace Resource Council advocates nuclear disarmament. But if any other group wishes to be listed in the service program, the district's regulations say that group "must provide assurances that the organization is free from doctrinal motivation."

Even if the courts refuse to declare community-service requirements unconstitutional, Institute for Justice attorney Scott Bullock predicts that the "next generation of lawsuits" will occur in those school districts that politicize their programs or refuse to include traditional voluntarism as part of the service requirement. The institute may represent Eagle Scout Aric Herndon, a ninth-grader in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Herndon's scouting activities don't count toward his service requirement. "Politicizing these programs inevitably leads to litigation as school officials and students battle over which organizations, in the words of the Bethlehem program, `promote the welfare of the community,'" Bullock says.

Far from training a generation of students who prefer to work with their neighbors in "little platoons" to feed the hungry or house the homeless, service learning teaches the opposite lesson: Once an individual recognizes a problem, it is his duty to lobby the government to solve it. As one Maryland high-school student states in an MSSA video, "I feel I have a commitment to go lobby, even for myself. You know, I could go lobby for these people, because they can't all help themselves."

Mark Parenti attends the University of Maryland School of Law and lives in Annapolis, Maryland.