When the new administration’s budget blueprint arrived last month, the math was, to say the least, unsettling. The EPA and State Department would see their budgets slashed by nearly one-third, Agriculture and Labor by 21 percent and the Education Department — which affects my area of work and interest — would take about a 13 percent hit.
The severe proposals sparked an intense and important national debate that continues today. Largely lost in the back and forth, however, has been the proposals affecting AmeriCorps, a program that since its inception has been a model for how to efficiently and effectively improve millions of lives. The Corporation for National and Community Service, or CNCS, which has administered AmeriCorps and other volunteer service programs for a quarter-century, has undoubtedly changed America for the better. But in the proposed budget, CNCS, and with it AmeriCorps, would be eliminated.
Budgeting demands hard choices. Keeping AmeriCorps should be an easy one. I’ve seen the program’s impact firsthand through my organization, Communities In Schools, or CIS, a national organization that works full time inside schools helping at-risk students stay in school and succeed in life. (I’m also the proud parent of an AmeriCorps alum.) I can vouch for the fact that a nation without AmeriCorps would be one in which the roughly 14.5 million children — 1 in 5 — currently living in families strained by poverty would fall further behind. Research shows that the best path out of poverty begins in the classroom, where some of AmeriCorps’ most important work happens.
Bill Milliken, the founder of CIS, likes to say that “relationships, not programs, change children.” AmeriCorps volunteers live this motto in schools alongside our CIS teams by providing mentoring and educational support for at-risk students. The AmeriCorps volunteers, in coordination with CIS team members, build these relationships to bring about enduring change.
Our work with AmeriCorps makes us better, and that, in turn, helps more students succeed. For those people who understandably want to ensure a return on taxpayer investment in programs that tackle poverty and help America’s students, we have impressive data to support our work and mission. In our recent national impact report, 99 percent of our case-managed students remained in school, 91 percent graduated, and 93 percent were promoted to the next grade. A healthy 88 percent improved their academics.
AmeriCorps volunteers allow the CIS programs to have an even greater impact at the local level via mentoring, homework assistance and afterschool programs. They do it all. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve heard from our state authorities who work directly with AmeriCorps volunteers:
“AmeriCorps is a proven and efficient model that leverages private investment and allows communities to solve local problems with local solutions,” says Suki Steinhauser, CEO of CIS of Central Texas. “It develops important work skills and a lifelong commitment to volunteerism among the members who serve.” AmeriCorps cuts would, in Steinhauser’s estimation, curtail tutoring and mentoring services for 1,200 students in her region.
The AmeriCorps volunteers in New Orleans are often paired with students who have behavioral challenges. Sara Massey, president of CIS of Greater New Orleans and Baton Rouge, says these children “improve markedly” when given this individualized attention. “They are better equipped to handle the challenges of daily life and are more likely to be both physically and mentally present in school once the relationship develops.”
“AmeriCorps provides us with the staff it takes to go into our schools, build relationships and provide students with individualized, targeted and customized support services,” says Leah Livingston, a program manager for CIS in Lakewood, Washington. She says countless students would go without that support if not for AmeriCorps.
Massey and Livingston also point out a value-added aspect of AmeriCorps: The volunteers often go on to careers in social work or counseling, so the time volunteering in schools serves as an apprenticeship, of sorts. In New Orleans, Massey says the volunteer program develops the workforce in this city with many needs. Adds Livingston: “Many of our current employees are former AmeriCorps members.”
Eliminating proven programs that change lives will not make America great again. It would do the opposite. AmeriCorps offers many things that we can all embrace. National service is cost-effective — with $4 in returns to society for every dollar invested — and turns the reins over to local communities. This ROI is in line with the president’s insistence, as he released his blueprint, to “do more with less, and make the government lean and accountable to the people.” This is how public-private partnerships are designed to work.
“We are lucky that for more than 50 years, successive administrations of both parties have engaged with this concept of national service,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, just weeks before the proposed budget was unveiled. “We know the best solutions come from outside Washington where ordinary citizens are doing extraordinary things.”
I’ve seen these “extraordinary things” firsthand, whether in the smiles of hope among students in Atlanta, glimmers of opportunity in the eyes of kids in San Antonio, or the impact on my own family. AmeriCorps deserves our continued support. This is one cut that Congress should not make.
Dale Erquiaga is the president and CEO of Communities In Schools. He previously served as Nevada superintendent of public instruction and as a senior adviser to Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada.