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The Promise of Service

Obama Signs Serve America Act Today

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama speaks with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) on March 5, 2009. Today President Obama signs the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which focuses national service on priority problems and populations.

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President Barack Obama takes a critical step toward changing the way we take action in America by signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act today. Two years ago, the Center for American Progress called for service to be focused on priority problems and populations in its “National Service Agenda.” This groundbreaking legislation does both. It also provides a new way for the federal government to leverage private-sector social innovation, and it paves the way for the Corporation for National and Community Service to fulfill its potential as a “Small Business Administration” for the nonprofit sector.

While this legislation passed both the House and Senate with strong bipartisan majorities, it in fact followed more than a decade of inaction, as partisan concerns and programmatic challenges kept Congress from reauthorizing and expanding the national service programs. But Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), with their colleagues Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Mike Enzi (R-WY), and in the House, the leadership of Chairman George Miller (D-CA), managed to break through, answering the president’s call to action. As bumpy and long as this road has been, however, the hard work is just beginning.

To get off to a strong start, the president should put in place a team at the corporation with expertise in the substantive areas—such as education and energy conservation—addressed by the act. Program leadership should work across program areas. For example, the new head of the AmeriCorps Education Corps might also lead the Learn and Serve America program, and work closely with the Department of Education to make sure the corporation’s programs achieve their goals of advancing educational success. Similarly, if the corporation is to take on President Obama’s plans for a social entrepreneur agency, manage the Social Investment Fund Network, and implement the new nonprofit capacity building program, it will need to build a broader base of expertise in nonprofit management.

At the same time, the nonprofit world needs to get ready, not only to absorb new AmeriCorps members focused on education and other issues, but also to deploy community volunteers productively. All evidence suggests a dramatic growth in interest in volunteering. And whether than is due to the “Obama effect,” unemployed workers looking for something to do, or a growing desire to make a difference in the face of increased suffering, the volunteer management funds in the bill could not come at a better time.

Finally, an unsung piece of the legislation may well hold its greatest promise—to expand and deepen student service. Three new programs will offer peeks into how service learning looks at scale—if whole districts engage students in service learning, whole universities become campuses of service, and whole communities make a “summer of service” a rite of passage for students as they make the difficult passage from middle school to high school. These new programs must be structured carefully to ensure they model the case they were created to make.

Service learning has been a longtime interest of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose unfailing leadership and exemplary staff made this bill a reality. It is fitting, and in keeping with the bipartisanship behind the effort, that Senator Hatch should propose to name the bill for him. In his honor, it’s time to fund the new act and move quickly to unlock the promise of service to be a part of our national recovery and our new way forward as a nation.

Shirley Sagawa is a Visiting Fellow at American Progress.

For more on CAP’s proposals for national service, see:

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