Paul Vallas, chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, seems puzzled by all the fuss over the system's new requirement that students complete 40 hours of "community service" before graduating from high school.
"We mandate all kinds of things for children," he recently told the Chicago Sun-Times. "We mandate that they dress well, take care of themselves, behave themselves. We mandate that they go to school….[Mandating] is our mission, and to tell children what to do, to give them experiences that will be beneficial."
Vallas might begin to understand why the community service requirement raises hackles if he reflected on the meaning of "we" and "our" in those sentences. Does "we" refer to parents, the school district, or the State of Illinois? Whose children are "we" talking about?
Because of compulsory education laws, parents who can't afford a government-approved alternative are forced to send their children to state-run, taxpayer-funded schools. In light of this fact, opponents of mandatory community service have argued, plausibly enough, that it amounts to "involuntary servitude," prohibited by the 13th Amendment.
But this controversy reflects a more fundamental problem: In schools that rely on government coercion for their funding and enrollment, every decision is politicized, from the color of the walls to the content of the biology curriculum. When those decisions touch upon deeply held values, as in the debates over creationism and sex education, acrimony and bitterness are the predictable results.
The parents on the losing side of such conflicts rightly perceive the state as substituting its judgment for theirs in determining what beliefs their children should be taught. In this context, any attempt to define and mandate community service is fraught with peril.
One danger is that the idea will be so watered down that it becomes meaningless. Writing in The Washington Post, James Youniss and Miranda Yates, co-authors of Community Service and Social Responsibility in Youth, warn that Maryland's community service program is at risk of becoming "a Mickey Mouse requirement," with students getting credit for babysitting nieces and nephews, organizing school dances, and shelving library books.
Another danger is also suggested by Youniss and Yates, though unintentionally: Community service can be defined to advance a particular ideology. As a model for public schools, Youniss and Yates cite a private high school that sent juniors to work in a soup kitchen in conjunction with "a religion class in social justice."
In class, readings and discussions focused on "homelessness and related issues such as poverty and housing policy." The soup kitchen work, meanwhile, "reinforced the message of social justice," emphasized "the need for drug rehabilitation," and showed that "children have higher rates of poverty than adults."
The political slant of this program is not hard to discern. It is implicit in the very notion of "social justice" the school is pushing, which requires a major role for the state in redistributing income and providing goods and services.
Statist assumptions are also apparent in the Maryland Department of Education's portrayal of its community service program. The Institute for Justice, which has unsuccessfully challenged public-school service requirements in federal court, describes a poster that "depicts a student climbing the mountain of community service….At the pinnacle of the mountain, above such service as caring for the sick and aged, rests the form of service Maryland deems most important: lobbying."
It's a fair bet that public school officials will tend to favor lobbying aimed at expanding rather than restricting the power of government. Consider how Dan Kotowski, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, reacted to Chicago's community service program. "This will be a great source for volunteers," he said.
The New York Times quoted a Chicago Public Schools spokesman who framed the issue in a telling way. "If you let students work for an anti-handgun group, do you also let them work for the NRA?" he asked, apparently comfortable with the first possibility but appalled by the second.
Vallas, the school system's chief executive, told the Chicago Sun-Times that students would be involved only in "nonpolitical" projects. But he did not rule out Kotowski's group. Citing its programs aimed at "discouraging youth violence," he said there's a "fine line" between advocacy and community service.
There's also a fine line between education and indoctrination. Mandatory community service is yet another opportunity for the public schools to cross it.