Mandatory community service programs are increasingly becoming a standard part of the curriculum in many public schools across the country. For example, about 500 public school districts, including those in Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Detroit have adopted programs (Parenti 57). A main reason for this increase in mandatory community service programs is because President Clinton has been strongly stressing the importance of volunteerism among the nationís students. However, despite their growing popularity, these programs have also become a center of controversy. For example, supporters of community service say that it raises studentsí self-esteem and moral character and connects them to their community. On the other hand, critics of the programs say that these programs which require students to provide free labor, place the students in involuntary servitude, which is unconstitutional.
The court case Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District provides a good example of the controversy involved with mandatory community service. The Bethlehem Area School District requires that every public high school student perform sixty hours of unpaid service during the studentís four years of high school. The students must complete these hours after school, during weekends, or during the summer. The district provides an open-ended list of approved community service organizations from which the students may choose. In addition to completing the required hours of community service, students in such programs must also complete a written assignment describing and evaluating the experience. After performing the service and satisfactorily completing the written assignment, students will receive course credit. A student who does not complete the community service hours or pass the written component will not graduate. Lynn Steirer, a student, disagreed with the mandate. Therefore she did not receive her diploma. Steirer was a B student at Bethlehemís Liberty High School who had a history of volunteerism. However, her argument was that everything that she did came from the heart, not from her schoolís requirement. She continued to volunteer, but felt that the requirement was unconstitutional. Her lawyer, Scott Bullock, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, argued unsuccessfully in federal district and appeals courts that mandated volunteerism violates the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits involuntary servitude (Sauerwein 30). Bullock also claimed that such service interfered with the First Amendment right to free speech because required community service forces students to express specific beliefs. He is adamant that school districts must realize that they cannot force a student to do labor without compensation. However, the courts, along with many other people across the nation, donít think that mandatory community service is unconstitutional. For example, lower courts, including a federal appeals court, dismissed Bullockís Thirteenth Amendment argument and rejected the notion that required community service is modern-day slavery (Sauerwein 30). In order for the practice to be unconstitutional, the district would have to legally or physically punish students who decline to participate. Courts also rejected the Free Speech argument because the students could either choose to participate in the districtís programs or design their own (Minden 1393).
Not only is the legal system not convinced that these programs are unconstitutional, but the majority of American citizens, including students, are in favor of the national service program. They feel that the programs reap great benefits which include exposing students to community service and to make students aware of the positive aspects of providing community service (Purdum 21). The Bethlehem Area School District described four objectives in the Curriculum Course Guide: (1)[S]tudents will understand their responsibilities as citizens dealing with community issues; (2) students will know that their concern about people and events in the community can have positive effects; (3) students will develop pride in assisting others; and (4) students will provide services to the community without receiving pay. (Minden 1395)
Supporters of the programs also stress that community service will help improve studentsí self-esteem, ego, and moral development (Loeb 135). By requiring students to work in their community, as opposed to in school, these programs help familiarize students with their communitiesí needs. Then the students will feel motivated to make a difference in their community. Ideally the students will gain a sense of appreciation, respect, and pride for their communities. Therefore, the question is whether or not the students will indeed benefit from mandatory community service or, rather, feel violated by the school administration for forcing them to serve when they do not want to.Through much research and many surveys taken within high schools, there is a compelling case for mandatory community service. For example, Karen Garcia, a Las Vegas high school student says that she serves because she wants to, a viewpoint shared by many teenagers (Sauerwein 29). A recent poll conducted by Independent Sector, a nonprofit volunteer organization in Washington, D.C., found that one out of six kids, ages 12 to 17, chooses to volunteer (Sauerwein 29). Since these students already enjoy volunteering, they support the proposed program because they will also receive credit in school. As a matter of fact, according to a survey conducted by the Prudential Insurance Company of America, two thirds of the 933 teenagers interviewed said they thought it would be a good idea for their high school to make community service a graduation requirement (Saurewein 29). Students are realizing that those who have volunteer experience have an edge over those who do not when either applying for colleges or interviewing for jobs. Volunteer experience and cooperative learning education before graduation have become the new springboards into professional-level work after graduation. (Brougham 24) Smart students are using the mandatory community service program to their advantage. In May of 1993, the graduating class of San Francisco State University was asked: What was the most important factor in your finding work?. Fifty-six percent declared that it was their internships or volunteer experiences which helped them to find a job (Brougham 24). The benefits for the students who do volunteer work are overwhelming. For example, a student builds networks within the community, improves self-organization, establishes a greater sense of responsibility, expands work skills, and learns more about personal strengths and values. Learning in school becomes more relevant because teachers integrate the theoretical material with the students practical experiences. Therefore, students will have a greater interest in his/her schoolwork and will become motivated to get involved with his/her studies.
Even though the case for mandatory community service in schools is compelling, the critics of the programs will continue to debate their constitutionality. The controversy has become heated in recent years because of Clintonís proposals, and it is not likely that the debate will cool down soon. Both sides of the debate have held firmly to their beliefs; however, in order to benefit the students, a compromise must be made to please each side. If community service programs are integrated into the schoolís curriculum, the school boards must be careful not to violate the studentsís constitutional right.
Brougham, Catherine E. and Donald A. Casella. What works: student jobs open front doors to careers. Journal of Career Planning and Employment 55.4 (1995): 24-27, 54-55.
Loeb, Marshall. The big payoff from public service. Fortune 133 (1996): 135.
Minden, Scott D. The Constitutionality of Mandatory Community Service Programs in Public Schools. Southern California Law Review 68.5 (1995): 1391-1416.
Parenti, Mark. Lobbying School. Reason 25.11 (1994): 56-57.
Purdum, Todd S.. Clinton calls for volunteers in communities and Schools. New York Times 16 May 1996: A21.
Sauerwein, Kristina. A compelling case for volunteers. The American School Board Journal 183.3 (1996): 29-31.
This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.