A national public service academy, on par with the nation's military service academies, can develop a cadre of talented civilian leaders and inject prestige back into public institutions. That is the theory being promoted by two enterprising young government outsiders.
Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond, both in their early 30s, already have built a successful nonprofit to encourage college attendance in the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta. Now they want Congress to fund free higher education for civil servants. So far, they have garnered interest from about 10 senators, from both sides of the aisle, some of whom are pushing to write legislation for the proposal now instead of waiting until next year as planned.
"Public institutions are to be laughed at or mocked or gutted," Asch said. "We need to change that."
After Hurricane Katrina "showed the consequences of ignoring public institutions," Asch said, he began waking up at dawn at his home in Mississippi to write a proposal for the U.S. Public Service Academy.
Soon, Asch conscripted his wife's uncle, Dennis Ross, former special envoy for Middle East peace, and a professor he studied with at Duke University, Peter Wood, to start a board of advisers. And he brought Raymond, co-founder of Mississippi's Sunflower County Freedom Project, into the fold.
At the core of the proposal are these ideas: The 5,000-person undergraduate academy would be funded mostly by Congress at a cost of $205 million a year. Incoming freshmen would be nominated by members of Congress, in a process much like that at the military academies. A certain number of spots would be allocated to each state.
Students would be required to study abroad and to complete internships with nonprofit and military organizations as well as undergo a summer of emergency response training.
After graduation, students would repay the country for their free education by spending five years in public service, which Asch and Raymond define to include everything from teaching to becoming a park ranger, police officer or border agent, for either nonprofits or the government.
"We want to make this a unifying issue, the post-9/11 generation's institutional response," Asch said. "Get young people to commit themselves to the larger struggles of this nation."
The proposal even pitches a specific location -- the Walter Reed Army Medical Center's campus in northwest Washington, D.C., which is to be closed as part of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommendations.
The duo and supporters already have met with staff in the offices of Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; George Voinovich, R-Ohio; Evan Bayh, D-Ind.; Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; and Patty Murray, D-Wash. Asch said some staffers are beginning work on a formal legislative proposal, but declined to provide details because he does not want it to appear as a one-party issue. He and Raymond are insistent that the academy be a bipartisan undertaking.
But meeting with congressional staffers is a long cry from getting millions of dollars appropriated by Congress in tight budget times.
"It is a huge uphill battle," Asch acknowledged. "But great ideas can win. And yeah, sure, two [men] from rural Mississippi can come up with an idea and it can win."
Now Asch and Raymond are collecting signatures from high school and college students -- one million by December is their goal -- as evidence for skeptical lawmakers of youthful grass-roots support for the academy.