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 Thursday 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.
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.
Maximizing the impact
Balfanz, whose research and expertise in education policy includes college and career readiness among high school students, said the program could have a positive effect at a time when students whose education was interrupted by the pandemic are dealing with higher rates of mental health challenges, uncertainty in college enrollment and a tough job market.
“The youth labor market is not a friendly place anymore for someone with just a high school degree,” Balfanz said.
The challenge, he said, will be in the implementation — especially in structuring the program so participants are given some guidance, or perhaps further job or service opportunities, after the year of service.
“That’s a lot of the value of this,” Balfanz said. “To really maximize its impact, we have to help them make the transition to something after it.”
That may take a few years of evaluating the program as it gets off the ground, including setting expectations with host organizations and tracking where participants go next.
Some potential employers — including county governments and nonprofits — are hoping to use the service year as a kind of job-training period that leads to participants staying in the roles.
“There’s almost no field in county government that isn’t struggling to hire or retain workers,” said Brianna January, an associate policy director at the Maryland Association of Counties. “The longer-term hope is not only to fill some of these gaps, but hopefully it would ignite the passion to maintain a public service to maintain employment in these sorts of roles.”
Heather Iliff, president and CEO of the advocacy group Maryland Nonprofits, said the program would help organizations that are struggling to hire and sometimes don’t have the resources to administer other service programs. The federal AmeriCorps program, for example, prefers placing 10 members with an organization at a time, which requires someone to manage those employees, she said.
When considering where to send participants, the new state agency would prioritize organizations focusing on climate, education and health, according to the current version of the bill. Participants could be placed in state agencies, which have thousands of vacant positions Moore has promised to fill.
Other service initiatives
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.
Maryland Policy & Politics
In Maryland, lawmakers previously created Maryland Corps to offer participants a way to acquire skills and prepare for the workforce.
Originally designed to offer a year of service with a $15,000 stipend and a separate $6,000 educational grant, it was revised last year to offer at least 100 participants the grant plus a $15 per hour wage, instead of the stipend.
But without the support of former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, the program has existed “in name only” since its inception, said Democrat Sen. Shelly Hettleman of Baltimore County, who sponsored the original bill in 2016. Even with $5 million locked in for the 2024 fiscal year and up to $20 million in the 2027 fiscal year, no board members or staff were named to set it up.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and AmeriCorps veteran, also led the effort to establish Maryland Corps. As Moore’s bill moves through the General Assembly, Ferguson said he expects changes in the coming weeks will include incorporating some of the already-passed provisions of Maryland Corps, and potentially establishing the service year as “a component of a broader Maryland Corps program.”
Those changes, Ferguson said, could “make it more operationally efficient.”
Moore, after referring to Maryland Corps as a potential “sister” program to his plan during his committee testimony, said in his interview with The Sun that the programs would not be “competitive” and should be under the same umbrella in the new department.
Asked whether he’s open to amendments to the way he’s drawn up his flagship program, he said, “There’s a reason why we introduced the components to the bills that we’ve introduced. But I’m always open for the democratic process to unfold.”