AmeriCorps funds trimmed

Students may find fewer opportunities

Service organizations across the country and in the D.C. area could be in jeopardy because of funding cuts to a federal program called AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps is a network to recruit people to provide public service through nonprofits, public agencies and faith-based organizations. Many of these volunteers are current college students or graduates.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, has funded AmeriCorps through money appropriated by Congress each fiscal year since the program was established in 1993.

AmeriCorps members serve either full-time or part-time for between 10 and 12 months.

In return for their service they receive a $4,725 educational award, free training, student loan deferment and health insurance. About half of the members also receive about $9,300 as a living allowance.

"AmeriCorps supported me financially so that I could afford to volunteer," said AU freshman Chris Glassburn, who volunteered through AmeriCorps during the summer of 2002. "I earned the same amount I could have earned at McDonald's, but I was providing a valuable service and learned about something I was interested in."

Glassburn was a full-time volunteer at the Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania, working as part of a Revolutionary War reenactment.

Locally, 82 groups receive AmeriCorps funding, including the National Coalition for the Homeless, D. C. Habitat for Humanity and the Washington, D.C. National AIDS Fund.

These programs and others like them across the country could lose funding because of what the House Appropriations Committee called a "lack of financial and grant program accountability" of AmeriCorps' finances by the CNCS.

This issue is stirring heated controversy, especially among those directly affected by the budgetary problems: AmeriCorps members and the communities they serve.

"I don't think it was malicious. I think it was a management problem, a record keeping problem," said Laura Stevens, a legislative assistant to Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.). Greenwood is a member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

"I think they didn't know what was going on in their own organization," she added.

From surplus to deficit AmeriCorps has an operating budget and a National Service Trust from which it grants educational awards to members. In spring 1999, the CNCS reduced the amount of money they requested for the Trust due to the fact that not all of AmeriCorps members actually use their allotted seven-year educational grants.

In October 1999, Congress rescinded $80 million from the Trust, with a report stating, "The balances in the Trust appear at this time to be in excess of requirements based upon usage rates." Congress took back another $30 million from the Trust the following year, citing the same reason.

In April 2001, the CNCS proposed a change in their budget. They requested no funds from Congress for education awards and instead proposed to use interest earned from the trust to fund future awards.

Both Senate and House members questioned this change. In May the Senate requested an Inspector General's review on fiscal year 2002. The review concluded that the CNCS was fiscally sound in their decision to not ask for funds and that the Trust had sufficient money for future obligations.

Problems for AmeriCorps came to light in January 2003. Then, the Office of Management and Budget, an executive office that assists the President in preparing the federal budget, found that the methodology used by the CNCS to calculate its request for fiscal years 2002 and 2003 had improperly used future unearned interest.

This error resulted in a $64 million deficit in the Trust. Furthermore, Congress looked into the budget and performance reports of the CNCS and found that since 1999, the CNCS has enrolled 42,866, or 23 percent, more members than the National Service Trust could pay for.

D.C., Montana and Virginia were the only areas to have an increase in the number of programs funded. The rest of the country saw decreases of up to 85 percent, with a total cut of 54 percent for the whole country.

Volunteering at AU As part of AU President Benjamin Ladner's 15-Point Plan for improving the University, emphasis has been put on service opportunities from the top of the administration to the students.

More than 2,000 AU undergraduates - 36 percent - performed volunteer service last year, according to the Community Service Center.

"We have a lot of student who do AmeriCorps work through a program called Heads Up," said Community Service Center Director Karyn Cassella. "Fortunately for them, D.C. AmeriCorps has been under-funded in the past few years, and with a strong proposal, they got an increase in funding. So for some AU students, there will be more opportunity."

While the situation is healthier for the D.C. area, graduating AU students who looked to volunteer in other AmeriCorps-funded positions, such as the National Civilian Conservation Corps, Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America, may have a grimmer outlook.

"A lot of recent college graduates that go to work for a non-profit organization get jobs as volunteer coordinators," Cassella said. "Often they are the first positions to be cut when AmeriCorps funding is lost."

AU usually has between 12 and 20 applicants to Teach for America, a highly selective program that puts college graduates to work as teachers in some of the country's poorest school districts. Up until this year, Teach for America has had funding earmarked specifically for their program within the CNCS.

Congress changed that this year, deciding that the program should have to receive their money through competitive grants. Teach for America lost most of those grants to other organizations within the CNCS.

In response to these funding issues, Ladner was one of 190 university and college presidents to sign a letter to President Bush asking for supplemental funding for AmeriCorps.

Strengthened by law In light of this accounting problem and budgetary deficit in one of his flagship programs, President Bush signed the Strengthen AmeriCorps Program Act into law in early July.

Bush then called for almost $472 million in funding for the CNCS in 2004, more than $140 million more than fiscal year 2003. The House Appropriations Committee recommended a little more than $363 million.

"This act redefined the process by which the Corporation requests funding and disburses its living stipends and educational awards," said Stevens, Rep. Greenwood's assistant. "However, it isn't retroactive. It's not going to fix what happened over the past few years, but hopefully it will set things straight for the future."

The House allocated in Public Law 108-7, $64 million to the CNCS to cover the previous year's deficit, on the condition that the CNCS would provide a letter to the House detailing its past accounting practices.

"We want to know why they enrolled more members than they could pay for," Stevens said.

As of press date, that letter has not been sent and the $64 million is sitting in an account waiting to be used.

If the CNCS does not secure those funds first, according to one legislative advisor, it may be given to organizations like the National Council for Non-Profit Associations, Save AmeriCorps and Campus Coalition.

"[The CNCS] should secure the $64 million," said Sherry Brady, spokeswoman for the National Council for Non-Profits. "But they still need the $100 million in supplemental funding to pay for members that have already been enrolled in the AmeriCorps program."

With the new fiscal year starting at the end of the month AmeriCorps will have receive money that will go to individuals working in community-building agencies. However, the recent money problems may have taken a toll on those who are considering applying to AmeriCorps.

"It makes me look towards an internship instead of volunteering again," Glassburn said. "Which, unfortunately, probably won't be nearly as rewarding of an experience"

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