Does America need a public-service academy?

[Editor’s note: A longer version of this article appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.]

Pablo Eisenberg
Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg

The notion of public service has swept the country.

Among the ideas gaining significant attention in Congress is a plan to create a U.S. Public Service Academy to develop a cadre of highly qualified civil servants and civic leaders.

The brainchild of two former Teach for America volunteers, the academy would be a Congressionally-chartered and federally-subsidized four-year college patterned after the military academies and focused on public service and leadership.

In exchange for a free education, graduates would be required to serve at least five years at a government agency.

Many other ways to promote public service are available, especially at a time when the nation is in a financial crisis.

Besides, hundreds of colleges and universities already stress the importance of public service and leadership.

The support and encouragement of public service deserve applause, but that does not make it smart to build a costly, military-style institution susceptible to political influence and control and potentially litist in nature.

Supporters of an academy say the United States has a critical shortage of competent civil servants and that, therefore, the nation must
recruit and train Americans to fill this vacuum.

They also assert that many college graduates, saddled with thousands of dollars worth of tuition loans, cannot afford to consider a public-service job, let alone a career in government or at nonprofit groups.

A free university education with a focus on public service, in their view, could be the gateway to public-service careers.

But there is no dearth of interest in public service.

The enormous popularity of Teach for America and other volunteer programs reflect this desire on the part of young Americans to become involved in social change, participate in anti-poverty projects, and improve social institutions.

So the urgency of an academy seems to fade away.

Nor is the notion that young people cannot afford a career in government because of their large loans very convincing.

The real barrier to entry-level jobs in public service lies in the nonprofit world.

In recent years, nonprofit salaries and benefits for young people have been low, making it difficult, if not at times impossible, for college graduates to accept nonprofit jobs.

With the economic recession, moreover, the number of such jobs has decreased as charities have cut their budgets.

The structure of the proposed academy presents another set of questions and concerns.

The blueprint for the academy states that the institution would foster a campus esprit, culture and pace of life resembling those of the military academies, which train officers, or leaders, for a narrow line of activity and specialization — how to fight battles and win wars.

That is not the case for public service, an immense landscape of government agencies, colleges, religious institutions, international organizations, and other nonprofit groups with their own
distinctive needs, missions, objectives, operations, and styles.

So why pattern an academy after the military schools that are so different in purpose and process?

And why believe that specific training in public service is the way to develop great public servants and civilian leaders?

The academy would be housed within the Department of Homeland Security. It is a curious place for an educational institution that wants to develop independent public servants.

The president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, would appoint the academy’s 15-member board as well as its superintendent. How would that protect academic freedom?

The proposed admissions policies are even more alarming.

Like the military academies, members of Congress would nominate most of the students who attend the U.S. Public Service Academy. The president would nominate 25.

Why shouldn’t the academy follow the admissions policies of universities and colleges? Why should they be part of a political process? Why shouldn’t all students be able to apply directly for admission to the academy?

The costs of the academy are also worrisome, especially given the state of the economy and competing priorities.

Plenty of other ideas for promoting public service are probably more efficient. For example, it might be smarter to offer a free medical education to doctors and dentists who agree to serve at least seven years in parts of the country that face severe shortages of such medical professionals.

Other approaches would be to establish full scholarships at colleges and universities for students interested in public service; for Congress to expand loan-forgiveness programs for students who have spent years in government or nonprofit employment; and to provide direct grants to universities and colleges that establish programs stressing public service and leadership development.

Two other concerns cloud the proposed creation of a public-service academy — how graduates will be allocated to employers, and the danger of establishing an elite group of public servants.

While the momentum for a public-service academy is building, the concept leaves too many questions unanswered.

It is time for a serious public debate about the pros and cons of such an academy.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

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