Lawmakers to renew push for public service academy

House and Senate lawmakers plan to reintroduce legislation in the coming weeks that would draw young people into government careers through the creation of a public service academy.

The measure would establish a 5,000-person undergraduate academy, on par with the nation's military academies, to inject prestige back into public institutions and to highlight the importance of public service.

The academy would be free to students, at a cost of $205 million a year to taxpayers. Students would be nominated by members of Congress in a process much like that at the military service academies, and would be required to study abroad and to complete internships with nonprofit and military organizations. They also would undergo a summer of emergency response training.

After graduation, they would repay the country for their free education by spending at least five years working for the government, at the local, state or federal level. In a departure from the version of the measure introduced last year, they would not be allowed to fulfill this requirement by working at nonprofit charitable organizations.

The original bill was unveiled late last congressional session and did not make it out of committee. But Chris Myers Asch, who came to Washington to lobby for the academy after founding a nonprofit to encourage college attendance in the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta, said the initial introduction helped garner early support nationwide.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., plan to reintroduce the bill in their chamber. Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Chris Shays, R-Conn., are planning to introduce companion legislation in the House. The lawmakers are set to hold a press conference as early as next week to announce the bill.

"Now, more than ever, it is imperative that our nation improve its capacity to groom future public servants," Clinton said in a statement. "The establishment of a public service academy is an innovative way to strengthen and protect America by creating a corps of well-trained, highly qualified civilian leaders."

One factor driving the push for the academy is the pending retirement wave across the government, with 60 percent of federal employees expected to retire in the next decade, Asch said. "The consequences are only going to grow larger as time goes on, as these shortages become acute," he said.

The bill also addresses the need to develop qualified leaders to respond to potential terrorism, natural disasters or other emergencies.

Given the tight budget, new appropriations could be difficult to secure. But Asch was optimistic. "We, being the American people, fund things that we consider priorities and we value," he said. "We think that investing in public service leadership is a priority … and we need the political courage to pass this legislation."

In the meantime, Asch is encouraging high school and college students as well as recent college graduates to sign a letter to convince skeptical lawmakers of the youthful grass-roots support for the academy.

"We appreciate all the support from lawmakers thus far," Asch said. "We need to inspire young people to see public service in a different way, and to do that you need something inspiring and bold that will fire young people up about public service."

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