To What Extent Would Service Under Obama be Mandatory?

Ilya Somin points to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shikha Dalmia about McCain's and Obama's service proposals. The main differences appear to be their scope and the mandatory nature of some of Obama's.

I should note that the tone of Barack Obama's recent comments on service at the NYC Service Nation forum couldn't have been more different from his December and July major addresses on the subject. There are several indications in his remarks that Obama (or his staffers) had read my criticisms. And Obama sought to present his views in the least offensive terms possible (eg, two mentions of service for high school, but not a word about middle school; no promises to require all middle and high schools to adopt service programs by denying schools federal funding if they refuse).

One question that has arisen in discussions is the extent to which his "Universal Voluntary Service Plan" is nonetheless mandatory.

Because Obama calls his plan voluntary, it's important to understand exactly what he says and doesn't say. In the first two of his main speeches on national service -- on July 2, 2008 and on December 5, 2007 -- Barack Obama set his goal of 50 hours of service a year, promised that "We'll reach this goal," and explained how he would do so for middle and high school children:

So when I'm President, I will set a goal for all American middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year, and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year. This means that by the time you graduate college, you'll have done 17 weeks of service.

We'll reach this goal in several ways. At the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities.

So one hurdle that Obama's plan must vault is the U.S. Constitution, which limits the federal government to enumerated powers. Lacking the power to mandate universal community service directly, Obama candidly discloses his strategy: making federal funds contingent on schools having service programs that meet federal standards.

If Obama hadn't promised that "We'll reach this goal" of 50 hours a year of service, one might read his proposal as indicating that he would require schools to have service programs, but that these programs might not require 50 hours of service. Yet the only way that almost every 11-year old public school student in the country would serve 50 hours a year -- i.e., the only way that Obama could reach his goal -- is by doing what he seems to indicate he's going to do: setting a federal goal of 50 hours a year for each middle school student and reaching that goal by making federal funds contingent on middle schools requiring their students to serve those 50 hours.

Thus, it would be the public schools that would impose federal standards of coerced service on each child as part of their requirements for graduation. For students, service would be involuntary. Even for the public schools, their participation would be only nominally voluntary -- for how many public schools can survive without federal assistance?

Lest there be any remaining doubt that Barack Obama's "voluntary" universal service plan contemplates mandatory service for children, his Service Plan praises mandatory service in the sentence that immediately precedes his call for 50 hours of service: "Schools that require service as part of the educational experience create improved learning environments and serve as resources for their communities." Moreover, in his Plan, he promises to "develop national guidelines for service-learning and community service programs," thus not leaving the content of service programs to the states.

I suspect that Obama describes his mandatory plan as voluntary for good reasons: (1) part of his plan -- i.e., participating in his many new "Corps" -- is indeed voluntary, and (2) people bristle at the word "mandatory." In the movement for national service, it is common to describe mandatory plans as voluntary. For example, Representative Charles Rangel's National Service Act, which is languishing before Congress, provides for a universal draft with two years of service for virtually all persons ages 18-42, with no deferment for college. This explicitly mandatory service is described in the bill as "Voluntary Service" because "A person subject to induction . . . may volunteer to perform national service in lieu of being inducted."

Nonetheless, there still remain some ambiguities in Obama's Service Plan. Does Obama intend to force states to include private and parochial school students within his scheme? Obama does not say whether private middle and high schools would also be required to impose 50 hours a year. I assume that would depend on whether they rely on federal grants.

Also, how will students who defy their high schools or the state be punished? Will they be prosecuted, placed in re-education programs, or merely flunked? Obama's proposal never says.