Although a growing body of research has documented the benefits of service learning, which include greater academic engagement, civic behaviors, and personal responsibility, most students don’t have this opportunity. Disadvantaged youth in particular are significantly less likely to engage in service. For middle school students, service learning is a particularly potent way to help them connect what they learn in school to important life goals—a key to reducing the dropout rate.
The federal government supports service learning through the Learn and Serve America program. This program, enacted in 1990, provides support for school and community-based service learning for students from kindergarten to college. While it has played a role in increasing the percentage of schools that offer service learning—now 32 percent—funding for the program has declined over the years, from a peak of $46 million in 1995 to $37 million in 2007.
As Congress reauthorizes the National and Community Service Act, it should expand support for service learning by reexamining Learn and Serve and creating new funds that will allow federal dollars to be leveraged for service more strategically. Most Learn and Serve America dollars are allocated by formula to state educational agencies, a policy put in place in 1990 with the view that the program would grow in size and that a formula allocation would ensure that every state built expertise in service learning within its education agency. Unfortunately, most states get about $200,000 from Learn and Serve America and make grants of less than $20,000.
With the pressures on state education agencies to comply with No Child Left Behind, the tiny service-learning grants have had a limited effect on larger education budgets and policies. Learn and Serve America could be modified to be more effective by allocating funds only to those states that develop a highly leveraged plan. New programming should also be developed, such as grants for a Summer of Service for middle schoolers, or service strategies to increase college-going. To be most effective, these programs should also allow and prioritize larger grants that will build sustainable systems.
The framework for Learn and Serve America was developed almost two decades ago and has changed little over the years. Much has been learned since then about service learning and systems change. A reexamination of federal support for youth service in all its forms is long overdue to take advantage of this powerful tool for youth development and learning.
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