Compassionate Conversion

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"Of all the survivors of the Clinton era, the most unlikely may be AmeriCorps, the administration's 'national service' program." So wrote Les Lenkowsky, one of 15 board members of the federal Corporation for National Service (CNS) in the Jan. 22 issue of the conservative Weekly Standard. CNS' survival (and the fate of national service as well, if President George W. Bush has his way) will soon be firmly in the hands of Lenkowsky. In mid-June the White House announced the professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University and regular columnist in the Chronicle of Philanthropy will, if confirmed by the Senate, succeed former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) as CEO of the $766 million CNS.

 

Lenkowsky brings impeccable conservative credentials to the job. But while a student at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, he worked as a deputy director of the school's Upward Bound program, an early youth anti-poverty effort. That may have helped shape Lenkowsky into, if not a liberal, then certainly not a know-nothing conservative. He's a former director of research at the Westport, Conn.-based Smith Richardson Foundation (assets: $525 million). In 1990 he became president of the conservative but quirkie Hudson Institute, succeeding Mitch Daniels, now director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. At Hudson Lenkowsky steered the Indianapolis-based group deeply into contentious domestic issues such as welfare reform and national service. Leaving aside the wimp factor (an infectious disease spread via receipt of a Notification of Federal Grant Award), staunch opposition from Clinton-era supporters of CNS would seem to be in order.

 

But Wofford calls Lenkowsky "an outstanding appointment" signifying "the end of the road" on the journey to make CNS and its main program, AmeriCorps, "a bipartisan program." Jim Schiebel, the former Democratic mayor of St. Paul who ran VISTA for three-and-a-half years during the Clinton administration, is equally complementary towards Lenkowsky. He notes that, as a CNS board member, Lenkowsky "defended CNS in its darkest days" after Republicans took control of Congress in 1995. Catherine Milton, who ran CNS' predecessor agency during Bush I, says, "He's one of the three or four best board members I ever worked with." When CNS was under attack from Capitol Hill, says Milton (now the executive director of U.S. programs for Save the Children), "Lenkowsky lobbied key members of Congress" to save CNS.

 

In his Weekly Standard article, Lenkowsky wrote that the current structure "restricts AmeriCorps to a group of organizations that know the ropes of government contracting and can be readily monitored." What is needed, he argued, is "supplementing" the current system with vouchers that would allow those accepted for enrollment in AmeriCorps' $4,725-per-year job slots to go to work for "any organization with meaningful work to be done that meets the standards of a recognized accrediting agency, such as the United Way or the National Association of Evangelicals."

Lenkowsky's voucher proposal has most of CNS' 40 National Direct Grantees worried. It would also effectively bypass both of CNS' so-called "dual structures." One is the state commissioner system operating in all states (except the Dakotas) and organized into a D.C.-based group known as America's Service Commissions, where Bill Sundermeyer is executive director. They administer some $250 million in CNS funds that go to each state on a dollar-for-dollar matching basis. The 52-member group (including four territories) is chaired by Rosie Mauk, a former chair and current member of the Texas Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. The other CNS structure is the state offices that are an accumulation of programs such as VISTA, left over from the War on Poverty, and ACTION, a federal agency dismantled by Congress in the 1980s. They're represented by the National Association of State Program Directors, chaired by Vincent Marzullo of Rhode Island. Administered separately by state offices of education is the $43 million per year Learn & Serve America program aimed at students.

 

Slate columnist Timothy Noah calls Lenkowsky's voucher proposal, "The Plot to Kill AmeriCorps" by "making AmeriCorps as unaccountable as is humanly possible." But implementing Lenkowsky's plan for AmeriCorps would require legislative action. CNS, without an authorization since 1997, is expected to finally get serious congressional attention in 2002.

Vouchers are an ideologically neutral concept that, when applied to K-12 public education, are anathema to orthodox liberal Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), the newly installed chair of CNS' main Senate oversight committee. To the teachers' union, vouchers are a fascist plot. Yet consider an op-ed piece by Marc Mauer, the well-left-of-political-center assistant director of the D.C.-based Sentencing Project. In the Jan. 30 Christian Science Monitor, Mauer wrote a story titled, "Give Vouchers to Rehab Poor Juvenile Delinquents." He noted that locked-up youth are overwhelmingly low-income minorities, while better-off families use cash and health insurance to hire shrinks, for-profit residential treatment programs and lawyers. Sounds just like a privately financed voucher. Mauer's proposal for serving poor, troubled kids - and Lenkowsky's for direct-service staff  (that's what most AmeriCorps volunteers actually are) working in programs serving the poor - acknowledge the need for reasonable parameters. Even Wofford, the former CEO of CNS, says that "vouchers tested in various ways are a good idea" and cites the  7,000-strong VISTA volunteers program as a "form of vouchers" that's been around for 35 years.

 

Others are skeptical. Tom Erlich, the retired president of Indiana University and a CNS board member, says the current setup whereby

 

The staff and national offices recruit AmeriCorps enrollees and help train them "provides participants with a strong sense of an identity. ... I just don't see how that benefit could be continued under a voucher plan."

 

Critics of the vouchers approach say that's exactly the point - to turn AmeriCorps into a 50,000-member program with no group identity. All the better, say these critics, to have churches and others targeted for aid by the White House Faith-based and Community Initiative (directed by John DiIulio) to become the sponsors of AmeriCorps participants. Sneers one CNS staffer, "It's a rope-a-dope" plan to end accountability of federal funds that is "guaranteed to generate scandal."  

 

Failing to join the Lenkowsky parade is Rick Cohen, president of the progressive National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Cohen has two concerns about a CNS led by Lenkowsky. First is the harnessing of CNS "as a vehicle for carrying out the [Bush administration's] faith-based initiative," a development that is a virtual certainty. The other is "a greater shying away from anything that hints of social change and even against organizations with a history of advocacy."

 

What's with this liberal paranoia? Is Lenkowsky the keeper of a blacklist? He is all too well-acquainted with the lethal potency of a blacklist and its perils during the Senate confirmation process. In September 1983 he was appointed deputy director of the United States Information Agency, now part of the State Department. By May 1984, he had earned the dubious distinction of being the first Ronald Reagan nominee to be rejected outright by the Senate. The Foreign Relations Committee voted 11 to 6 (including three Republicans) against Lenkowsky's confirmation.

 

The source of Lenkowsky's fatal problem was an 84-name blacklist of prominent Americans he considered too liberal to be sent overseas as government-sponsored speakers. The list, which Lenkowsky steadfastly denied knowing about, included such alleged pinkos as broadcasters Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, Coretta Scott King, economist John Kenneth Galbraith (bad move, that one: Galbraith's son worked for the Senate committee) and poet Maya Angelou. Also on the hit list was the man, say many, who did more than any other to put George W. Bush in the White House and whom most Democrats now wish Lenkowsky had sent on a five-province speaking tour in Afghanistan: Ralph Nader.

 

Of more immediate and alarming concern for much of CNS' constituency than either Lenkowsky's blacklist history or interest in vouchers is the reorganization plan for CNS by the other guy from Indianapolis, former mayor Steve Goldsmith. Goldsmith, though now with a D.C. law firm, still retains the title of "special advisor to the president." Confirmed by the Senate in May to be on the CNS board, Goldsmith was promptly elected chair at a "retreat session" of the board held in Jackson, Miss., on May 21.  Federal law and CNS' own bylaws call for open meetings and, if closed, that a majority of the board so vote and that "each such vote be recorded," and the minutes made "promptly available." Board members who were interviewed afterwards were uncertain if the meeting and the vote confirming President Bush's decision of Jan. 29 (naming Goldsmith as chair) was taken in open or closed session. The now ex-chair, Dottie Johnson, a trustee of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, says "yes and no" to the question. "Who cares?" asked one CNS board member. "We're political realists." Certainly not Goldsmith! In his book "The 21st Century City," Goldsmith brags about the "sport" of dogging municipal procedures, and his hostility towards "bureaucratic rule-following." 

 

What was certainly closed to the public was a meeting Goldsmith held in Mississippi that included Betty Ruth of Athens, Ala., president of the Association of Retired and Senior Volunteer Programs (RSVP); Jane Watkins of Orlando, Fla., president of the National Association of Foster Grandparents Program Directors; and Richard Tate, president of the National Association of Senior Companion Project Directors. They are known collectively (and respectfully) as "the seniors."

 

Apparently unaware of the long-standing opposition of the seniors to the abolition of the CNS state offices and the placing of the senior programs within the state commissions, Goldsmith proceeded to lay out his plan that, say supporters, would save $12 million. It would, says a white paper from America's Service Commissioners (ASC),  provide state commissions with "non-duplicative" federal support. Mauk says the ASC has no formal position on combining the two structures. ASC's Sundermeyer says of the group's For All to Serve policy paper (www.ase-online.org), "the purpose of the document was to stimulate discussion."

 

The ASC paper and the Goldsmith parley with the seniors have done just that. At their Mississippi meeting, says Watkins of the Foster Grandparents, Goldsmith spoke of "streamlining" CNS programs "under the state commissions." A similar consolidation was put forward by Wofford in 1995 and rejected by Congress, says RSVP's Ruth, because "its not a workable process." Goldsmith has resurrected the plan, says an irked Ruth, for "unknown reasons." Watkins notes that this reorganization debate has "been going on forever." One reason certainly isn't because anyone with political sense (except possibly the state commissions) wants to tangle with the seniors. That includes the 56-member National and Community Service Coalition chaired by Pam Boylan of Providence-based Campus Compact. It supports the current "time tested system." Says Watkins of the 35-year-old Foster Grandparents program, "the system has worked for us." The seniors say Goldsmith implied that his plan has the support of the CNS board. Goldsmith was absent for the public sessions, leaving only the closed "retreat session."

 

"We didn't discuss it," CNS board member Bob Rogers, president emeritus of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, says about the elimination of the dual system. Johnson, who was chair at the time of the meeting, thinks it was discussed because "it made sense to look at the Goldsmith agenda." That's hardly a mandate for change from the CNS board.

 

Meanwhile, the seniors won't be sticking to their knitting. Says Ruth ominously,  "we'll be doing our homework". That assignment has already taken the seniors to a sit-down gripe session with the White House Domestic Policy staff.

 

The younger generation's prognosis for Goldsmith's plan were not as polite. Says Kathleen Selz, executive director of the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, "After the seniors kick the [bleep] out of him, he'll change his mind." Says a CNS veteran, "The White House will have to do reconstructive surgery" on Goldsmith and CNS "when the seniors get through." Says RSVP's so-you-want-to-fight-take-this Ruth, "We're not opposed to eliminating the state commissioners." That's an oblique reference to a recent CNS Inspector General's Report which found that CNS headquarters "advocates a collegial and unstructured approach" to monitoring subgrantees, which it characterizes as a "risk-based monitoring strategy." Of 37 pre-audits of state commissions, the IG's office found that only five of 37 "have adequate monitoring systems."

 

ASC Chair Mauk, who was first appointed to the Texas commission by then Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, and reappointed twice by Gov. Bush, says the CNS constituency has to "help manage change" and not be "just fighting against it." Part of that change may be the appointment of Mauk (she was active last year in Texas Democrats for Bush) to run AmeriCorps. Still, with reauthorization in 2002 just six months away, guess who's going to win this Bingo game?  Contact: (202) 606-5000, www.cns.gov.