A Push to Create a Fresh Class of Public Servants

By Stephen Barr
Friday, March 23, 2007

It's a project without big-time lobbyists and with very little money. But advocates for a federally financed public-service academy have managed to put together a bill and line up congressional sponsors, and now hope to find committee chairmen to sponsor Capitol Hill hearings.

"A year ago, this was a piece of paper and a Web site," said Chris Myers Asch, who is a leader of the effort. "It has gotten a lot further and a lot faster than we anticipated. Folks from across the political spectrum have endorsed the idea."

Yesterday, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) re-introduced legislation to create a U.S. Public Service Academy. A version introduced last September was too late for any congressional action, but Clinton and Shays promised to try to get the votes for passage this year.

The school would offer a free education to about 5,000 undergraduates in exchange for their commitment to work for five years in public-service jobs in local, state and federal governments.

The nation has supported "wonderful military academies," Clinton said, but "we don't have a comparable institution to prepare leaders on the civilian side."

Added Specter, "We need more professionalism in government."

Asch and Shawn Raymond, who served in AmeriCorps together in Mississippi, came up with the idea for the academy after seeing friends shy away from government careers because of school debts or because they could not see themselves working in a large bureaucracy.

"We are not getting people to come into public service," Moran said, in part because the cost of higher education steers young people to more lucrative jobs in the private sector.

Moran said the academy is urgently needed because it would help fill staffing gaps in agencies created over the next decade as more federal employees retire.

The bill sponsoring the academy does not say where it should be located, but proponents think Washington makes sense because the federal government serves as a magnet for public-policy scholars and is home to think tanks, nonprofit groups and federal agencies with specialists who could teach.

The proposed academy would use West Point and other military academies as models and would be administered by the Department of Homeland Security. A major goal of the academy would be to train leaders in education, health care and law enforcement to bolster national security, Asch said.

"Without strong and effective public institutions, we aren't safe and secure," Asch added. "I think Hurricane Katrina proved that dramatically."

Asch said he has left his job at a nonprofit group he founded with Raymond and is working full time on the academy project. He presented Clinton with a letter yesterday signed by more than 1,000 young people who heard about the academy through social networks online.

Young people today "want more out of themselves. They want a chance to serve," Asch said, adding, "This is an idea whose time has come."

Although eight senators and 20 House members have agreed to co-sponsor the bill, its prospects are uncertain. The price tag would run about $200 million annually, not counting start-up costs, and that might be too much money for Congress to guarantee when it is under pressure to hold down federal spending in fiscal 2008 and pay for Iraq war costs.

Talk Shows

Darryl Perkinson, president of the Federal Managers Association; Thomas Richards, FMA's executive director; and Jessica Klement, FMA's government and public affairs director, will be the guests on "FedTalk" at 11 a.m. today on http://Federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Robert Shea, associate director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company