The Next Great American Institution

In the upcoming days, Representative Jim Moran of Virginia will introduce a bill that could create for President Obama what the Peace Corps was for John F. Kennedy and AmeriCorps was for Bill Clinton. Like these two high-profile--and increasingly popular--programs, the Public Service Academy seeks not only to create more opportunities for Americans to serve, but to change an entire culture's approach towards service.

Like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, the Public Service Academy will send a message that service is a national priority. But unlike these programs, the Academy will focus on an area of public service that these major initiatives have not emphasized: full-time, career-oriented public sector service.

The Academy will create a civilian counterpart to our military academies. But instead of leaders for the armed forces, the Academy will teach America's best and brightest how to be effective and efficient leaders in local, state, and national government. Students would earn a four-year scholarship to study a unique curriculum focused on civics, international education, and leadership development. In addition to a liberal arts major, they also will focus on a public service field that has been recognized as an area of critical need--currently identified as education, emergency management, energy & environment, foreign policy, health care, and law enforcement.

The Academy would serve approximately 5000 students a year, and, upon graduation, students will serve in their public service area for five years. They might be teaching in a rural school district in Louisiana, or working for a national agency, like the FDA or FEMA. Just as the service requirement for the military academies are often only the first steps of a life-long career in the Navy, Air Force, or Army, the hope is that the Public Service Academy will prepare an entire generation of leaders for our government.

As 90% of federal leadership becomes eligible for retirement in the next ten years, and shortages in hospitals, classrooms, and police departments are projected for cities and towns across the country, the United States will need these leaders to make our government work again. With government agencies already attempting to expand their staffs already attempting to expand their staffs as well as deal with recent mishaps and failings, there isn't any time to waste.

Administration leaders certainly recognize the idea's potential: Rahm Emanuel and Joe Biden both co-sponsored the Academy bill last year, and Hillary Clinton championed the proposal in the Senate. President Obama has called for the rejuvenation of volunteerism and community service; appropriately, there's no better time to focus on building a strong government that can support and carry out these ideas. The president has also called for transparency and efficiency in government; what more fitting legacy can he leave than to ensure a generation of leaders that will make government better?

With strong support in the White House, it will be up to Congress to get the bill to President Obama's desk when it drops next week in the House and shortly afterward in the Senate. Although supporters of the Academy come from both sides of the aisle--last year, the bill racked up 123 sponsors in the House from both sides of the aisle, and 24 likewise diverse supporters in the Senate--it has also faced critics that are generally afraid of perceived high costs and bigger government.

The Public Service Academy would require a $205 million appropriation per year. That's about 70 cents a year from each American to run a flagship institution that would produce continual returns for our country. And not only would students of the Academy replace retiring baby boomers or fill already existing shortages, but well-trained leaders will make government more efficient--better, not bigger.

But the general argument behind critics' fears is true: the U.S. Public Service Academy certainly requires significant economic and governmental investment--and supporters of the bill should not shy away, but rather, champion this fact.

That's part of the point. Proposed and existing scholarship programs, tax breaks or financial aid incentives that attempt to encourage public service do not have the power to capture the imagination of a generation. They fail to send as clear and salient a message: public service is a priority not for the select few who are interested in--and likely to seek out--these programs, but for every American.

Have you heard the Truman Scholarship? It is perhaps the most prestigious public service scholarship, yet many Americans have never heard of it. How about the Pickering, the Hollings, or the Udall Scholarships? Or the Federal Cyber Service Scholarship? These are all federal scholarships that have been created to encourage public service; they are also, despite being excellent opportunities, not on the radar of most American youth.

Imagine a high school student who is interested in public service but unsure about how exactly it fits into his future: it's likely that he or she won't have heard of these programs. But this same student will have likely heard about West Point--because it has become, like the Peace Corps, a hallmark American establishment. For this same reason, the Public Service Academy, when it is built, will not only provide unprecedented access to public service for young people, but bring respect and prestige back to public service in our country.

If President Obama acts now, the U.S. Public Service Academy will be associated with him and his administration, much like the way the Peace Corps still evokes John F. Kennedy. As we approach Presidents' Day, we citizens should let Congress know that we support what would be the next landmark American institution and an enduring legacy for generations to come.