Howard County delegates support Gov. Wes Moore's service-year plan for high school graduates

Mar. 17—As a candidate with more than a few lofty and idealistic plans, Wes Moore had one idea that often rose above the rest as he campaigned for governor.

A program that allows all high school graduates in Maryland to participate in a paid year of service, he often said, would be unlike anything else in the country. It would connect young people with opportunities that could create a lifelong dedication to public work — as his years in the military, the world of philanthropy and government service did for him.

Now more than halfway through his first 90-day legislative session as governor, Moore is doubling down on starting a program this year that he wants to become "as common an option and as common a part of the vernacular as any other option" that someone finishing their high school education would consider.

"The same way they will look at the military or look at higher education or look at entering the workforce, I want them to have another category that they're looking at, which is this service year," Moore said in an interview earlier this month with The Baltimore Sun.

Nonprofit organizations, local governments and businesses that would host service-year participants are eager to get started. And Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, are indicating their general support.

Del. Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Howard County in District 9B, is a supporter of the bill.

"I think our high school graduates could use some more options. Not everyone's ready to run off to college or start a full-time job immediately after high school," Watson said. "This would give them diverse experiences that they can apply to future occupations. It also provides a pool of public service providers that can help in the state, in the community, in doing different things that become part of the governor's program."

Watson hopes the bill will build a service-oriented generation in Maryland and views it as a local version of national initiatives such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America.

"It's a gap year in which students can learn a lot about different aspects of public service and explore things that they might want to go into full time as a full-fledged adult," Watson said.

"It's meant to diversify graduates' experiences and help them discern which direction they want to take after high school. It should broaden their horizons, as my mother used to say, and make for a more well-rounded citizen, someone who understands the importance of public service after they complete their year ...They will be able to go on in life and really understand the importance of public service and hopefully continue to do it throughout their lifetime."

Watson also said the bill could help level the playing field when it comes to who can afford to take a gap year between high school and college.

"Typically now, only students of means can afford to take a gap year because they might be doing something and not getting paid for it," she said. "They're not getting paid, but they're getting this great experience, whether it's an internship or trip abroad. But the students whose family can't afford that, can't afford that experience."

Watson said Howard County has a number of nonprofits and government agencies that she thinks will be eager to welcome program participants into their ranks. Ideally, participants will eventually be invited to stay full-time.

"The sky's the limit in terms of what types of opportunities eventually become available here. I think there'll be plenty of them."

Del. Chao Wu, a Democrat who represents District 9A in Howard and Montgomery counties, has also signed onto the bill.

"I believe it will provide opportunities for students to grow their skills and be ready and productive in real work environments," he said.

But Moore's SERVE Act also likely faces some changes, including balancing the idea with a Maryland Corps program lawmakers passed in recent years but haven't been able to fully launch.

Also, in a state with roughly 60,000 high school graduates a year, the program would start on a much smaller scale before being offered to any recent graduate.

Under the current version, up to 200 people would go to organizations for a year of service starting this fall. The capacity would increase to 500 in mid-to-late 2024, 1,200 people in 2025, and 2,000 people in 2026.

Participants would need to have earned a high school or GED diploma or "similar education level" within the previous two years, according to the legislation, which is House Bill 546 and Senate Bill 551.

Robert Balfanz, a professor of education and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said he expects demand to exceed capacity as high school seniors learn about the service option.

About two-thirds of Maryland's 60,000 annual high school graduates students would go to college, Balfanz said. In an ideal scenario, probably an overestimation, about half of those roughly 20,000 remaining students would find decent jobs, he said.

If students up to two years out of high school are included, as the bill specifies, that would mean a potential pool of 20,000 people interested in participating.

Jonny Dorsey, a deputy chief of staff for the governor and one of the program's architects, expects "one of the hardest things for the secretary and the team at this agency is going to be the selection process for the many, many, many people who want to serve."

Two hundred slots this year, he said, was a "sweet spot" that would allow them to "scale very ambitiously in the next few years."

The governor, testifying in support of the bill during a Senate committee meeting last month, talked about building the program "smartly and deliberately."

He told senators it would require a "slow and efficient rollout," though he later said in the interview with The Sun that he wouldn't necessarily call it slow to give 200 students the chance to participate in the first year.

"It's aggressive and it's ambitious and it's doable," Moore said.

Part of the consideration for lawmakers in determining the size and speed of the program's growth will be the cost.

The program would be administered by the new Department of Service and Civic Innovation, which the governor created in his first days in office. His proposed budget included $18 million for the department between the current fiscal year and the one that begins July 1.

Current plans would require hosts organizations to pay a participant a $15 hourly wage for at least 30 hours per week. It also would allow the state agency to give participants a $3,000 stipend from state funds when they complete the year.

Those stipends ultimately would cost $6 million per year for 2,000 participants, in addition to costs for outreach, developing an online portal and evaluating the program each year.

And while the bill mentions only that employers would pay the hourly wages, Dorsey said the grant money proposed for the department would be used to send money to employers to pay the salaries. The proposed budget calls for $1.5 million in the current fiscal year and $8.3 million in the next to cover those costs.

The administration plans on requiring employers to share in wage costs in the future, Dorsey said.

The legislation also would allow officials to raise money from private sources for the program.

While public service initiatives developed by government officials aren't new, experts say the program outlined in the SERVE Act would be the first of its kind in the country that targets recent high school graduates statewide.

"We really see this as a potential flagship program that could be replicated in other states around the country, and its focus on helping youth figure out the next step is really, really powerful," said Kaira Esgate, CEO of America's Service Commissions, a nonprofit that promotes state service efforts across the country.

Esgate said even states like Massachusetts, which has a Commonwealth Corps, and California, which has different programs for groups such as college students, don't have the kind of large-scale effort for younger adults Moore is proposing.

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Baltimore Sun Media reporter Sherry Greenfield contributed to this report.