FAIR HILL -- In the near-tropical July heat, 14-year-old Mike Runyons sweats and scrapes the paint off a park office deep in a forest.
Mike, who has had trouble in school, likes getting paid to paint the office of the Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area each morning, and then to get tutoring in the afternoon. But he complains that the job is hard, and class is "boring and easy."
His boss and summer teacher at the Cecil County park, Linda Tascione, waves the youth's criticism away. She says she can see that the discipline and extra schoolwork are helping the Rising Sun youth.
But are they?
If studies of other summer job programs are any indication, Mike will finish his six-week job with an academic and career head start over kids who didn't get jobs or tutoring.
In a year or two, however, the studies predict, Mike's lead will have vanished, and he will have little to show for having gotten a federally funded summer job.
As President Clinton pushes Congress to expand the federal summer jobs program, the reasons for hope and concern can be seen in Maryland, where the government will spend a total of $15.4 million to create 14,000 minimum-wage jobs during the school break.
Nearly everyone involved, from the teen workers to U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, says the jobs are needed to offer kids constructive activity during the school break.
But, critics say, many of the summer jobs offer little real training. And whatever benefits the jobs do offer may be misdirected.National politicking has moved thousands of scarce summer jobs from desperate inner cities to comparatively better-off suburbs.
The amount of money spent on summer jobs has fallen in this year by 29 percent to $850 million because of the lapse of the urban aid program passed after last year's riots in Los Angeles.
And the cuts have hit cities like Baltimore hardest.
Because of a change in Congress' plan for distributing jobs, Baltimore, which had enough money for 8,140 summer jobs last year, could provide only 4,640 this year -- a 43 percent drop.
Andrew Sum, a Northeastern University economist who ran the research arm for the federal government's Office of Youth Programs during the Carter and Reagan administrations, said studies of the programs show they have "a relatively small effect" in long-term help for workers.
Part of the problem is inherent in government, he said.
In the rush to create six- or eight-week jobs on last-minute congressional funding, "we overstaff parks and child care big," often creating make-work jobs, he said.
Even the jobs with some substance don't necessarily help youths get jobs in the private sector, Mr. Sum said. They often just reinforce knowledge of government jobs the kids were already familiar with, Mr. Sum said.
Mr. Sum said he defends the summer jobs program against budget cutters because there is no alternative for disadvantaged youths.
Last year's summer jobs programs gave 194,000 black teen-agers across the country jobs -- which meant that nearly three out of four black teens who worked last summer got their jobs through the government.
"The key thing it does is put those kids to work who would be least likely to get work on their own," he said.
Sar Levitan, a work-force expert who heads George Washington University's Center for Social Policy, agrees even though he concedes "there is very little evidence" that the program has long-term benefits. "It is better to keep kids working than hanging around on the streets" and the jobs give many youths that all-important first job for their resumes, he says.
Take Dashaun Avalon, for example. The 14-year-old Lake Clifton High School freshman is spending each day this summer as part of a 10-teen crew overseeing a classroom of second-graders at an inner city "reading camp" at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School in Baltimore.
Dashaun makes sure games of musical chairs stay honest and peaceful. He reads to the kids and likes helping with the crafts, such as making animals out of yarn.
He's looking forward to spending his paychecks on new school clothes. And he says working is better than stewing at home, as he did last summer.
The job isn't really anything new for him. His boss at the reading camp happens to be his mother.
But the job is teaching him a few things, he says. He has to wear slacks to look well-dressed even on sweltering July days. "And I'm learning what it would be like to work with children," he said.
The benefits are subtle, but they are also real, and that's why President Clinton is trying to beef up the program, said Don Kulick, coordinator of the summer jobs program for the U.S. Department of Labor.
"The president is very personally committed" to the program and has proposed a budget increase for the 1994 summer, Mr. Kulick said.
But Mr. Kulick said that concerns about the lack of evidence for long-term results have spurred the government to propose changes.
Next year, he said, the government plans to require all children in federally funded summer jobs to put in 100 hours of paid classroom time.
The change, if adopted, is one way to resolve the problem of what do with children of working parents during the summer vacation.
"In part," Mr. Kulick said, "this is an attempt to get to year-round schooling."
To make sure the children can keep the head start they develop in the summer, the administration will propose extending the program through the school year, Mr. Kulick said.