Outlook for public service academy brightens

Backers of a public service academy are optimistic that their proposal will gather momentum under President-elect Barack Obama, and possibly even gain approval during the new administration's first year.

Chris Myers Asch, one of the architects of the proposal, said the creation of the academy could be a hallmark of Obama's first term in office, much like the introduction of the Peace Corps was for John F. Kennedy in 1961, and the AmeriCorps program was for former President Clinton in 1993.

"The Peace Corps is the best historical precedent," Asch said. "An incoming president has this idea that he wants to create a legacy in public service, and he often does that in the beginning of the first year. We see the academy as being that institution, that legacy of service for this president."

Legislation introduced during the 110th Congress by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Chris Shays, R-Conn., would have established a 5,000-person undergraduate public service academy, on par with the nation's military academies, to restore prestige to public institutions and to attract young people to government jobs.

The academy would be free to students, at an annual cost of $205 million to taxpayers. After graduation, students would repay the country by spending at least five years working for the government at the local, state or federal level. Supporters say the academy would help the nation combat potential acts of terrorism and natural disasters and offset an anticipated wave of retirements.

Asch, who started lobbying for the institution in 2006, said the strategy always has been to secure passage of the proposal in 2009, when the new president and Congress have a fresh opportunity to call a younger generation to government service. "We had no intention of trying to get the bill passed in the 110th Congress," he said. "From the beginning, we've had a 2009 strategy. We envisioned it as the best time for the academy."

The goal, Asch said, is to pass the bill by Sept. 17, 2009. He noted that as a senator, Obama pledged to vote in favor of the proposal. Further, Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel were co-sponsors of the academy legislation during the 110th Congress. And a number of likely candidates for top posts in Obama's administration have supported the proposal, including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross. Carol Browner, former director of the Environmental Protection Agency and a member of Obama's transition advisory board, also has endorsed the academy.

"Having them in key positions in an Obama administration certainly doesn't hurt," Asch said.

Adding to the optimism is the fact that Clinton and Moran, the major sponsors of the academy legislation, plan to reintroduce the bill early in the next Congress, and all the legislation's 23 Senate co-sponsors and 111 of its original 123 House co-sponsors in the 110th Congress have retained their seats. "We've already reached out to many of the candidates as they were running to make sure they knew about the academy," Asch said, "and we'll use our youth council members who are in the districts to reach out to them."

Robert Tobias, director of public sector executive programs at American University, supports the creation of the academy, but expressed more skepticism about the proposal's near-term prospects for passage. "Fixing the financial system and health care are going to be ahead of the public service academy," he said. "At the same time, I think that President Obama will be focused on a renewal of public service at every level."

Asch pledged to ensure the proposal "gets the attention it deserves next year." He noted that the academy would provide thousands of jobs, giving the plan an economic benefit.

"It also has symbolic power, does something substantive for the long term, and it's easily done," Asch said. "The economy, health care and getting out of Iraq will be difficult, but the Public Service Academy is easy."

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