This month, nearly 25,000 Louisiana school kids and preschoolers are losing their teachers, tutors and mentors, all of whom were funded through the federal AmeriCorps program. Across the state, programs that employed AmeriCorps members are facing devastating losses. Most of these losses could -- and should -- be averted if the U.S. Congress approves $100 million in emergency appropriations for AmeriCorps.
The AmeriCorps programs are part of the Louisiana Serve Commission, under Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Last Thursday, Blanco traveled to Northwestern State University in Natchitoches to introduce the Louisiana portion of "Voices for AmeriCorps" -- a planned 100 hours of round-the-clock nationwide testimony on the issue that went live to Capitol Hill via videoconference. "I told them how devastated I was to be begging our nation for a mere $100 million when this money has such a powerful impact," said Blanco by telephone after her remarks.
The impact on this state and this city is profound. In New Orleans, the YES! adult literacy program is losing all 12 of the AmeriCorps members who had been working on the Leadership Through Reading project in schools such as John W. Hoffman, Carter G. Woodson, William J. Guste and Sylvanie F. Williams. Members assisted classroom teachers, worked with kids and referred parents to YES! adult literacy classes. "After September, we can no longer be there for those kids, those schools, and those families," says YES! executive director Lou Johnson.
In the fingerlings of coastal land that make up Golden Meadow in Lafourche Parish, AmeriCorps members have for years spent their weekend hours building sand fences and planting natural marsh grasses. Three years ago, AmeriCorps also funded the program AmeriCorps on the Bayou, which brought in 10 to 12 people annually. Because of their efforts, part of that land has not been lost to the Gulf. But the program has now been shut down.
Louisiana utilizes more AmeriCorps members than other similarly sized states. This year, Louisiana AmeriCorps had been budgeted to place people in 700 slots. They now will place only 126 -- about one-fifth of what they'd planned.
People hired by AmeriCorps are called "members" because they are not purely volunteers -- they receive annual living allowances averaging between $2,500 and $3,000. After successfully completing a 1,700-hour term of service, they receive $4,725 in the form of a federal education award that is paid directly to a college or university or paid toward an existing student loan. More than 2,500 AmeriCorps members have used their education awards in Louisiana, bringing more than $5 million of federal funding to our institutions of higher learning.
Some of Louisiana's biggest AmeriCorps losses are in its schools. "Our kids are under so much pressure because of the LEAP tests," says Blanco, "and our AmeriCorps service members were in those classrooms, tutoring and teaching 24,000 students." Over the past decade, the national nonprofit program Teach for America has recruited, trained and placed AmeriCorps members in state schools. Last year alone, Teach for America placed more than 250 teachers in Louisiana. This year, Teach for America began training 300 teachers. Sadly, none of those teachers will be funded by AmeriCorps now. The schools will still pay the living allowances and Teach for America is attempting to pay their members' education awards for this year. But Teach for America is bracing for what next year's funding process may bring.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush praised Teach for America and its founder Wendy Kopp. "I hope young Americans all across the country think about joining Teach for America," he said. Bush similarly called for an increase in AmeriCorps, says Louisiana Serve Commission executive director Shawn Wilson. "There's a great need in the community, there was a great interest in serving our country after 9/11, and people came forward," Wilson says.
Now, Bush supports only an increase for the federal fiscal year beginning in the autumn of 2004. Key opponents, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, call AmeriCorps a flawed Clinton administration program and point to accounting and infrastructure problems within the Corporation of National Service, which oversees AmeriCorps nationally. But the Strengthen AmeriCorps Program Act, which Bush signed into law in July, largely addressed these problems. Which is one reason why, over the past few months, the president and Congress have received a flood of bipartisan letters urging support for AmeriCorps. The letters came from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 44 governors (including Louisiana's Mike Foster and Florida's Jeb Bush), 55 U.S. Senators (including Mary Landrieu and John Breaux), and 224 members of the U.S. House of Representatives (including Louisiana members William Jefferson, Christopher John, Rodney Alexander and David Vitter).
With the cuts, AmeriCorps also stands to lose local, foundation and corporate matching funds. Just before the August recess, the Senate passed $100 million in emergency appropriations. The House should follow suit. Louisiana Congressmen Jim McCrery, Richard Baker and Billy Tauzin have yet to say if they will support the new funding. We urge them to join the fight to help Louisiana by saving AmeriCorps.