Plenty of Vision, Paucity of Detail : To sell, promising national service plan needs spelling out

The National Service Initiative announced by President Clinton Monday was deservedly greeted with great enthusiasm and hope. Besides signaling a refreshing break with the self-indulgence of the last decade, the program could provide opportunities for thousands of young people to make a personal contribution to their communities.

Before the President submits the plan as legislation, he must spell out important details regarding cost and implementation. Without these specifics, it is doubtful that Congress will express the same excitement that greeted Monday’s announcement at Rutgers University.

The initiative would begin this June with “the Summer of Service"--a $15-million pilot program employing more than 1,000 low-income teen-agers for eight weeks in a variety of jobs focusing on education and leadership training. In addition to having earned a minimum-wage stipend, those who completed the summer service would receive a $1,000 credit toward college or vocational training.


TAPPING A RESOURCE: The larger--and far more costly--component of the service program would begin shortly afterward, when the government would put 25,000 college-age people to work year-round in health care, education, public safety and environmental jobs. Participants would receive payments that could be used for tuition debt or would earn financial credit toward additional education. By 1997, more than 100,000 youths would be participating, the Administration estimates.

The proposal’s greatest virtue lies in its promise to the youth of America, a largely untapped source of creative energy. Like President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the initiative would encourage--and reward--young people for serving their country and communities. And, as with the GI Bill of Rights, it would hold out the opportunity for higher education.

But with a price tag put at $7.4 billion over four years, Clinton’s initiative probably will spark stiff opposition from Congress members concerned that it would create more federal bureaucracy when many Americans want less.

In its details, the program should balance direction and leadership from Washington with responsive, decentralized administration, balance the kind of hands-on management best done at the local level with necessary federal oversight and direction.

Among the questions that remain unanswered: What criteria would guide the selection of participants? Would decisions be based on need or achievement?

PICKING AND CHOOSING: Selection based solely or largely on achievement might exclude those whose financial need is greatest; but selection based on need alone could rule out many eager and committed candidates. Choosing participants through a carefully structured lottery might avoid these extremes.

With attention to crucial details, the Administration could build a program that might be a model for government/private partnerships to come later. But it must demonstrate flexibility. The government must be able to quickly eliminate any parts that do not work.

President Clinton speaks often of “investing” in the nation’s future-- America’s infrastructure, its technology and its people. He deserves support for his proposed National Service Program on the ground that this is an investment that can reap great benefits.

He should hold to the meaning of his words by detailing the costs as well as the benefits, implementation as well as concept. Above all, Clinton must remember the investors who matter most--the taxpayers.

National service is a very promising idea. It deserves a confident, and detailed, rollout.