“It is in giving ourselves to others that we find ourselves,” Bernie Noe, upper school principal at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., assures his teenage students. He is instructing them in the Quaker tradition of community service, lived out in such activities as cleaning up the C&O Canal, picking vegetables for the poor or renovating a low-income house for the national program Christmas in April.
As a private school, Sidwell has long had the unchallenged right to require its graduates to volunteer. But in recent years, such service requirements for academic credit have been implemented in taxpayer-supported public high schools. After the idea got rolling in the mid-1980s, it was endorsed by President George Bush and then spread in some form to nearly a quarter of all public U.S. high schools, according to the Educational Research Service.
“To make a contribution to the community, and learning from that contribution, helps one to become a lifelong learner,” says Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, whose state in 1992 became the first to make community service a graduation requirement.
An idea that sounds rosy in theory, however, is not without its thorns. Maryland recently reported that of the program's first group affected by the new requirement, the Class of '97, nearly 5,000 seniors, or 40 percent statewide, have yet to fulfill the minimum number of hours.
What's more, several conservative political and legal groups have challenged the program on constitutional grounds, using the same arguments many use against community-service requirements for convicts and pro bono work that some attorneys are required to perform. Some parents warn that the program is unfair to lower-income students who already have after-school jobs.
“The assumption is often made that if something is good for some it must be good for all, and should be practiced by all,” says a spokesman for the National Center for Effective Secondary Schools, which has studied teen service. “Service freely entered into may not even be the same thing, nor have the same effect, as service mandated by a higher authority, which calls up the image of reluctant teenagers trudging resentfully through their service assignment.”
In Chapel Hill, N.C., the parents of two students sued the local Board of Education to challenge the schools' service requirement, citing the 13th Amendment's ban on involuntary servitude. A federal appeals court in North Carolina this July upheld the school district. “Freedom from compulsory charitable service is not among the rights” identified by courts, said the 4th Circuit judges. “More importantly, the community-service requirement is in no way comparable to the horrible injustice of human slavery.” The Institute for Justice, a conservative group in Washington, filed an appeal with the Supreme Court in November.
In the volunteer community, graduation requirements for service draw mixed reviews. “I have no problem with a law firm requiring its attorneys to do pro bono work because the lawyers can choose whether to work there,” says University of Texas history Professor Marvin Olasky. “But high school students? The question is, are they getting a good education academically? Will they start doing other things instead?”
Harris L. Wofford, CEO of the Corporation for National Service, which sponsors AmeriCorps, says he would back the idea if he were on a local school board. “All Catholic and prep schools require it, and you can connect service with the curriculum, so that students are not just talking about civics and reading the Constitution, but they're going out and doing civics and citizenship,” he says. Wofford does not, however, favor Congress stepping into a local education issue and mandating community service requirements nationwide.
“I don't think coerced volunteerism works,” says Princeton University social scientist Julian Wolpert. “It is a good idea to train students to live civically in society where others' needs are important, but a better approach is to recruit the best students or the most athletic students to serve as examples.”
About the same percentage of schools that require volunteerism have programs that merely encourage it, says Virginia Hodgkinson, vice president for research at Independent Sector. “And giving students a chance to volunteer through a course they're taking is not the same as requiring it.”