ANNAPOLIS – High school students should not be forced to perform community service to receive their diplomas, supporters of a House bill to repeal the service learning requirement told the Ways and Means committee Wednesday.
But students and education officials told legislators the requirement benefits communities and teaches the value of volunteer service.
The State Department of Education requires high school students to complete 75 hours of volunteer service to graduate, a requirement designed to boost community involvement and promote leadership.
But some proponents of the bill say students are made slaves to causes they do not support simply to fulfill the requirement.
Del. Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel, said she sponsored the bill because she thought that community service took away from the academic curriculum.
“Service learning costs money, teacher’s time and class time,” Greenip said, adding that she was concerned about the end of federal funding for the program.
Del. Raymond Beck, R-Montgomery, said the requirement detracts students from the spirit of volunteering. “This is an injustice to the time-honored traditions of volunteer work,” he said.
But State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick defended the policy. “Service learning allows students to use the skills and knowledge learned in school to solve real community problems,” she said.
About 50 high school and middle school students from across the state took the day off to submit testimony supporting the community service requirement.
Sam Franklin, a freshman at Arundel High School in Odenton, said he enjoyed activities for which he recently volunteered. “Service learning does help us become part of our community,” he said.
Peter Burns of the Maryland Association of Non-Profit Organizations said children are more likely to volunteer later in life if they are exposed to community service in their youth. “What is at stake is the future of philanthropy in our community,” he said.
But some of the bill’s proponents said they were concerned the requirement would end up supporting a school official’s special interests.
“My son should not have to pass a morality test to practice altruism and get his name on a diploma,” said Thomas Bowden, an attorney who lobbied against similar requirements in Bethlehem, Pa., and hosts an annual “Alternative High School Graduation” for those who refuse to complete the Bethlehem school board’s requirement.
Del. Michael Burns, R-Anne Arundel, said he became concerned when a constituent told him her daughter was forced to work on a candidate’s campaign.
“We are not here to mandate people to work in political campaigns,” Burns said. “I’m worried about the impact of how this thing works in practice.”
Other teachers and parents said they were concerned about the lack of authority the Department of Education has over the program. The department requires each student complete 75 hours, but lets each school district form its own guidelines, a policy that has caused confusion, several parents and teachers testified.
But Suzanne Goldsmith, a volunteer coordinator who has worked with public high school students, said the requirement is nevertheless an important part of the state’s educational reforms. “This is sound education policy and the best form of civics education,” she said. The committee took no action on the bill Wednesday. -30-