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.
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Bill Expanding AmeriCorps Prompts Funding Debate

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Bill Expanding AmeriCorps Prompts Funding Debate

Bill Expanding AmeriCorps Prompts Funding Debate

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Part of the government's expanded spending could include an expanded national service program. AmeriCorps, which has programs in fields like education, health and the environment, could soon triple in size. The House passed a bill to enlarge AmeriCorps last week and the Senate could follow. But some critics question whether it makes sense for the government to pay billions more for the program. NPR's Pam Fessler visited one AmeriCorps project in Baltimore, Maryland.

PAM FESSLER: Kimberly Rice is petite with short, curly hair. She came from a middle-class Connecticut neighborhood and graduated from Cornell. Now she's in downtown Baltimore, working with a half-dozen teens who have been arrested for misdemeanors, and she's trying to make a point.

Ms. KIMBERLY RICE (AmeriCorps): 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, and then we're shoving each other and then I just wailed off and punched her.

FESSLER: The teens watch with varying degrees of interest as Rice pretends to be a high school student arrested for second-degree assault. One girl, with a baseball cap pulled to her eyes, slouches like she'd rather be almost anywhere else. But she doesn't have much choice. This is part of Baltimore's teen court, an alternative to the regular juvenile justice system.

Ms. RICE: Do you think she could have made some better choices about what she did?

Unidentified Man: No.

FESSLER: Rice is an AmeriCorps volunteer and is training these teens to be jurors for future cases. She's also trying to get them to think about right and wrong.

Ms. RICE: Do you think it was necessary to punch the girl in the stomach?

FESSLER: But that's just one of her jobs. Rice also helps to 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 her school bills.

AmeriCorps says that nationally, its 75,000 members last year mobilized about 2 million other volunteers. Nonprofits say it's these ripple effects that make the program invaluable.

Mr. CORTASZ STEELE (Volunteer): 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.

FESSLER: Nineteen-year-old Cortasz Steele has been volunteering at Baltimore's 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. Now, he hopes to go to law school and continue helping teens.

Mr. STEELE: They sometimes just need people to talk to. We go through a lot when we go home and then come to teen court. Sometimes we've got responders that have attitudes. They just needed somebody to talk to.

FESSLER: But some lawmakers aren't convinced that such programs are the government's job. In the House, North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx complained that legislation to expand the number of national service slots to 250,000 is a waste of money.

Representative VIRGINIA FOXX (Republican, North Carolina): I think it's important that we encourage volunteers, but this is a paid job. This is a government-authorized charity.

FESSLER: And she questioned its effectiveness, especially at a cost of about $6 billion over five years. In fact, AmeriCorps has been criticized for mismanagement in the past. One year, it enrolled 20,000 more volunteers than it had the money to pay for, although the agency says it's fixed the problems. Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a strong supporter, cautioned at a recent hearing that AmeriCorps has to be able to handle all these new volunteers.

Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Maryland, Democrat): So that we don't create hollow opportunities to pass an authorization that does not have the resources behind it, just makes us feel good. We want to do good.

FESSLER: And that's a concern - that Congress might not come up with enough funds to manage the program, especially as debate over the federal budget intensifies. Barbara Reynolds runs Volunteer Maryland, which places about 75 AmeriCorps members across the state. She says there's a cost if she's suddenly able to hire twice as many volunteers.

Ms. BARBARA REYNOLDS (Volunteer Maryland): Yippee-ay-yay - you know, that's wonderful news, and that means twice as many criminal background checks, twice as many training manuals, twice as many nonprofit agencies will have to be recruited and trained in order to know how to work with these AmeriCorps members.

FESSLER: She says she's optimistic that Congress will come through, but most in the volunteer world also know things are seldom as easy as they seem.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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