Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Chris Shays, R-Conn., are sponsoring the measures. They said the bills will help the nation combat potential acts of terrorism and natural disasters as well as a wave of retirements slated to hit the government over the next decade.
The academy "is the most meaningful way we can educate people to be leaders tomorrow," Moran said. "What you're seeing is the beginning of something that matters."
The measures would establish a 5,000-person undergraduate academy, on par with the nation's military academies, to inject prestige back into public institutions and 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, students 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 a version of the measure introduced last year, they could not fulfill this requirement by working at nonprofit charitable organizations.
Lawmakers are hopeful that the reputation of the military academies will shed light on the public service academy's potential for success. "Just think of the military without the academies," Shays said, "and just think about what public service could be like with an academy."
The original bill was filed late last congressional session but did not make it out of committee. The lawmakers pledged to make the measure a major priority this year, adding that 28 co-sponsors have signed on.
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 bill also has gained strong support from young people across the nation. Thus far, more than 1,000 have signed a letter to convince lawmakers of grassroots support for the academy, he said.
And the bill may gain even stronger support as the nation becomes more informed of the threat of a pending retirement wave, with two-thirds of the federal workforce eligible to retire over the next decade, the lawmakers noted.
"We are facing … the impending retirement of so many of the senior ranks of our government," Clinton said. "The people who do everything from help predict the weather, to run our nuclear power plants, to figure out how the Social Security system will keep functioning … we're concerned that we're not going to have the workforce that we need in the next 10 years to keep this complicated government functioning."
The lawmakers attributed much of the problem in recruiting young people into public service to the fact that college graduates often come into the workforce with massive amounts of college debt. Irasema Salcido, founder of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School in Washington, D.C., said many of the school's graduates would like to go into public service but cannot afford it. "The Public Service Academy would allow them to continue in public service," she said.