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Wes Moore wants Md. students to do a year of service after graduating

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore wants to offer tens of thousands of young Marylanders a chance to participate in a state initiative similar to national programs like AmeriCorps. (Bryan Woolston/AP)

Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Wes Moore (D) wants to create a new rite of passage to adulthood for high school graduates: a year of public service.

The idea of having young Americans spend a year providing service in their communities has been bandied about for more than a decade. National nonpartisan groups have formed around it. A presidential candidate once suggested it. But political will and the often hefty price tag associated with requiring participation have stalled national efforts.

And now Moore, an Army veteran and lead contender in the race to become Maryland’s next governor, is pushing a plan to offer tens of thousands of young Marylanders a chance to participate in a state initiative similar to national programs like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and Teach for America.

The service year option, which would provide job training and mentorship, is designed to prepare young Marylanders for college and careers and to make access to those opportunities equitable and affordable; part of Moore’s broader platform to attack complex systemic problems, such as child poverty and the racial wealth gap, with a focus on providing the same opportunities to people from various backgrounds.

Project advocates say it would be the first program of its kind in the country. Maryland lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to launch Maryland Corps, a similar, and much smaller, program more than five years ago, but concerns were raised about the $2 million needed to implement it and the idea was shelved.

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Moore, who has not offered a cost estimate and has said he does not plan to raise taxes to fund it, said his program probably would run through a partnership of federal, state, and local governments, along with nonprofit and for-profit companies. An industry expert estimated that a service year option could cost as much as $30,000 per year for each participant, depending on how it is structured.

Moore sees it as an investment in the state’s economic and educational future.

“If you look at things like gap years, … the challenge of them is that not every kid can do it,” Moore said. “I’m a big believer in experiential learning. I feel like there’s a lot of students who are just finishing up and they’re not clear what they want to do. And so if you give them an opportunity to learn and grow … that’s going to help them through this transition to adulthood.”

Most of the calls for national service have followed major flash points in history, from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to the 2016 presidential election, which caused political divisiveness.

The vitriol has led to an increase in hate crimes in Maryland and across the country. According to FBI data, hate crimes in Maryland skyrocketed 110.5 percent, from 19 in 2019 to 40 in 2020. The numbers jumped 13.4 percent nationwide.

Advocates say service brings people together from different races, cultures and economic statuses for common purpose.

John M. Bridgeland, co-founder and vice chairman of the Service Year Alliance, an initiative to create a national service counterpart to military service in the United States, described Moore, a best-selling author and former chief of one of the country’s largest poverty-fighting organizations, as being “uniquely positioned to advance this idea at a uniquely important moment in history.”

Bridgeland, who was appointed the first director of the USA Freedom Corps, a national community service program created after 9/11 by President George W. Bush, said much of the debate around service has been on the national level and has mostly focused on whether Americans should be encouraged or required to do it. Similar to Moore, many of the proposals have come from leaders with a history of military service.

Three years ago, Pete Buttigieg, a Navy veteran and then-mayor of South Bend, Ind., suggested a mandatory national public service program for young Americans to develop skills and to build social cohesion. Roughly a decade ago, U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), a Korean War veteran, introduced a failed bill that would have forced every young American to do two years of national service before turning 25.

A number of states, including California and Iowa, have made varying levels of investment in service, most of which are focused on conservation, but Bridgeland said he knows of no other that has enacted a program on the scale of what Moore is proposing.

“If it does come to fruition, it would be a model,” he said. “A common question is: Where are you going to college or what are you doing after? If this took off, it could be: Where are you doing your service year?”

The program, which is part of Moore’s education, economy and social justice agendas, would offer a stipend for work in fields that could include environment, education, and health care. An added incentive could include in-state tuition, he said.

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While the scope of Moore’s plan would be novel, the idea builds off a state program, Maryland Corps, that was proposed six years ago and never got off the ground. The legislature passed a bill in 2016 to create a pilot program for 100 participants between the ages of 17 and 23.

Under the bill, Maryland Corps would have provided stipends of up to $15,000 for corps participants and one-time scholarships of up to $6,000 for those who completed the program. Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) said the bill passed, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed it but didn’t provide any funding for it.

Earlier this year, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed a more expansive bill for 5,000 participants with a $20 million price tag, hoping to launch the effort working with a new Democratic administration. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) worked with Hogan to set aside $5 million in the 2023 fiscal budget as seed money for the corps program.

“The opportunity to explore public service and serve your community is sort of the thing that we both agree is essential for both expanding opportunity and restoring democracy so that people can do things across lines of difference that they might otherwise not and not have the opportunity to be exposed to one another,” Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus, said of Moore.

The Democratic nominee, who attended military school and whose mother signed him up for the Army at age 17, said a service year option is personal to him because of the way his military service affected his life.

“The values that I developed in the Army mirror much of what I saw in military school, and it now mirrors in many ways everything that I continue to see now,” Moore told an audience at the Brookings Institution in May of last year, a month before launching his gubernatorial campaign. “We were all under a common bond, and it didn’t matter whether or not we went to college, or voted as Democrats or Republicans, we had a shared mission. We had a common purpose.”

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