Bill Expanding AmeriCorps Prompts Funding Debate

The Senate is considering its version of a bill to triple the size of AmeriCorps, the national service program. The House passed a similar bill last week with bipartisan support. While increasing volunteer opportunities is popular, some critics question whether it makes sense for the government to pay billions of dollars to make it happen.

Teaching Responsibility, Right And Wrong

AmeriCorps volunteer Kimberly Rice works with a nonprofit program in Baltimore. She came from a middle-class Connecticut neighborhood and graduated from Cornell. Now she's working with city teens who've been arrested for misdemeanors. On a recent afternoon, Rice tries to make a point.

"I jumped up and I started yelling. I'm like, 'You totally did that on purpose. I can't believe you,' and getting up all in her face, and she gets back up in mine and she starts shoving me," she says, pretending to be a high school student arrested for second-degree assault. "Then we're shoving each other, and then I just wheeled off and punched her."

Rice is trying to train these teens to be jurors in Baltimore City Teen Court, an alternative to the regular juvenile justice system. The teens watch Rice with varying degrees of interest. One girl, with a baseball cap pulled to her eyes, slouches like she'd rather be almost anywhere else.

But everyone here has to participate. Besides teaching the teens about jury duty, Rice also tries to get them to think about right and wrong, and responsibility.

"Do you think she should have made some better choices about what she did?" Rice asks. "Do you think it was necessary to punch the girl in the stomach?"

This is just one of her jobs. Rice also helps recruit and train dozens of judges, lawyers and student volunteers who make teen court a reality. For this, she gets a small stipend of about $13,000 and help with help school bills.

Mobilizing Millions Of Volunteers

AmeriCorps says its 75,000 members last year mobilized about 2 million other volunteers nationally. Nonprofit groups, squeezed for money, say those ripple effects make the program invaluable.

For example, 19-year-old Cortasz Steele has been volunteering at Baltimore City Teen Court as a jury foreman for five years. He says his life at one of the city's most troubled high schools could easily have gone a different way.

"When I came here, I started feeling a sense of responsibility that I had to be a role model to other children that were coming here," he says.

Now, Steele hopes to go to law school and continue helping teens.

"They sometimes just need people to talk to," he says. "We go through a lot when we go home and then come to teen court. Sometimes we have responders who have attitudes, and sometimes they just need someone to talk to."

Besides regular student volunteers like Steele, many of the teens who are arrested and go through the program also end up staying on as volunteers.

But some members of Congress aren't convinced that such programs are part of the government's job.

Feeling Good Vs. Doing Good

In the House, North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx complained last week that legislation to expand the number of national service slots from 75,000 to 250,000 would be a waste of money.

"I think it's important that we encourage volunteers," she said. "But this is a paid job. This is a government-authorized charity."

And she questioned the program's effectiveness, especially at a cost of about $6 billion over five years.

In fact, AmeriCorps has been criticized for mismanagement in the past, although agency officials say they've fixed the problems. One year it enrolled 20,000 more volunteers than it had the money to pay for.

Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a strong supporter, cautioned at a recent hearing that AmeriCorps has to be able to handle all the new volunteers and that Congress should not "create hollow opportunities."

"To pass an authorization that does not have the resources behind it just makes us feel good, but we want to do good," she said.

The Costs Of Expansion

There's also some concern that Congress might not come up with enough money to manage the program, especially as debate over the federal budget intensifies.

Barbara Reynolds of Volunteer Maryland, which places about 75 AmeriCorps members across her state, says she's thrilled about the effort to expand the program. But she says there's a cost if she is suddenly allowed to hire twice as many volunteers.

"That means twice as many criminal background checks, twice as many training manuals. It means twice as many nonprofit agencies will have to be recruited and trained in order to know how to work with these AmeriCorps members," she says.

But she says she's encouraged by all the bipartisan support and thinks Congress will come through.

Correction April 3, 2009

In some broadcasts, we incorrectly said, "Barbara Reynolds runs Volunteer Maryland, which places about 75,000 AmeriCorps members across the state." The correct number is 75 AmeriCorps members.

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