Community service. The phrase has a wholesome, Amish-barn-raising feel. Teach kids to help others. When did this well-meaning idea become more burden than benefit?
"Bright Futures increased volunteer hours to 100," my high school sophomore informed me recently. She'd already completed 75 at a local kids' program to qualify for the state scholarship. "I'll sign up to work one more week this summer." Sounded simple, until the youth coordinator called me.
"The state now requires volunteers to get fingerprinted," he said. "There's a place in north county that does it for $38 — you'll need to make an appointment." Never mind the affidavit of good character and criminal background check — we'd done that drill before. It was the fingerprinting that pushed me over the edge. I'm calling for revolution.
How did we get to this point? Community service starts in elementary school and continues through the high school years. Many gifted, magnet and scholarship programs and honor societies have service requirements. Teachers make up their own projects. Even colleges are jumping on board.
"We're proud of our university's contribution to this city," one college president told prospective students, including our daughter. "At this school, community service is a graduation requirement." Really? With a price tag of $50,000-plus per year, I expected my child to be on the service-receiving end. Couldn't she dig community gardens in the summer when I was not paying for it? And by the way, Mr. President, how long did you labor spade in hand?
My problem isn't with safeguards like fingerprinting. We don't want sexual predators teaching our sons to swing a bat or measuring our daughters for chorus robes. But making students pay for the privilege of working for free? There's something seriously wrong with that.
I'm not a self-absorbed princess — I believe we need to take care of our neighborhoods and the people in them. I've logged hundreds of volunteer hours chairing committees, feeding the homeless, teaching kids to read, picking up beach trash and more. But I chose these tasks; they weren't forced on me. Our Constitution bans involuntary servitude. Does mandatory community service violate that spirit?
My children are uber-volunteers, too, in the sense that their work is unpaid. Take my older daughter, who applied for a Bright Futures scholarship. She found an organization that needed her, got it approved by the school, worked out a schedule, completed paperwork and had it notarized. I drove her back and forth to the job until she got a license. Then I lent her the car.
Add 150 hours required by her International Baccalaureate program. Tack on 10 more for honor society. Religious school? Another project, more driving for me. And that's just one child.
I bought into the plan, ferrying kids to the sheriff's office to prove they were felony-free, delivering books to blind children, directing traffic at carwashes. But something was out of whack. As an arbitrator in juvenile court, I sentenced offenders to community service. Why was this criminal penalty also imposed on the best students, and in spades?
True, kids can probably get through school without community service. But the reality is, high achievers who have already demonstrated their work ethic do a boatload of unpaid labor before they graduate. Is this fair, necessary, or even desirable?
Charity can start at home. Kids can spend free time doing chores and working part time, which teaches them unselfishness and responsibility. With the economy still in the dumps, many families need any income teens can earn. They may be the very people student volunteers mean to help. We shouldn't expect tapped-out parents to provide vehicles and gasoline to get students to unpaid jobs. Or drive them there.
Public schools make enough demands on family resources, with materials fees for art classes and hundreds of dollars in costs for some after-school clubs — not to mention the senior year price tag for photos, yearbook, proms and more. That puts a burden on many families. Can't we make community service voluntary, not one more obligation for families stretched to the limit of time and money?
Social responsibility is one subject everyone can "homeschool." Parents set the example when they mow the lawn for an elderly neighbor or run an errand for a new mother. Bring the kids along, and when they're old enough make sure they pitch in. Public schools should let parents handle this one. They've got plenty of other problems to solve.
Liz Drayer is the mother of two and a lawyer in Clearwater.