America is built on simple principles: Everyone should have the same opportunity to get ahead, and everyone has a responsibility to give something back…

So begins the paper outlining John Kerry’s plan for a “record expansion in national service,” a call for “500,000 more Americans in national service each year within a decade.” It’s brief–only three pages–yet it contains more specific information and bona fide public policy than anything else we’ve looked at so far. It seems a little unbelievable at this point, but Kerry has a good idea here, and he backs it up with what seems to be a sensible budget. Let us relish the moment together.

The Kerry plan breaks down this way:

200,000 Americans serving full-time for two years and getting four years of college aid in return. These 200,000 individuals fall into the following categories: “75,000 young people helping educate children in troubled schools; 25,000 young people improving our homeland security; some 100,000 young people serving in other critical areas, from building affordable housing, to helping seniors live independently, to keeping our water and parks clean.”

300,000 Americans in college serving part-time and teaching our children while at the same time earning help to pay for school. This includes “100,000 more young people preparing toddlers for school; 100,000…helping children learn to read”; and “100,000…helping older students find the path to college.”

In fiscal terms, Kerry is essentially proposing 200,000 tuition grants, as well as opening up eligibility for “up to $2,000 a year” in student aid for part-time national service employees. There are additional benefits he proposes as well, but we’ll get to those in a little while.

The grants “will pay for four years of tuition at the typical public university,” which, naturally, varies. Here in California, state university tuition averages at roughly $7,700 annually; this is slightly below the national average listed for the most recent Department of Education statistics. We’re basically looking at, give or take a few dollars, a $32,000 grant for two years of work in one of the following three capacities:

Teachers, Teachers’ Aides, Tutors, and Mentors (75,000 people). These people will serve “in the urban and rural communities where schools have the fewest resources and students face the largest obstacles to success.”

Police Officers (25,000 people). This service will be accomplished through Police Corps, a decade-old program which has “helped young people become police officers and pay for college…by assisting other first responders in preparing for, and dealing with, emergencies.” Currently, the Police Corps program provides scholarships of “up to $3,750 annually” in exchange for four years of service, so I’m not entirely sure how Kerry’s recruits are going to fit in, but whatever.

Other Critical Needs (100,000 people). This group includes recruits for programs “like YouthBuild,” which teaches construction skills while helping members work toward GEDs or high school diplomas. YouthBuild is obviously geared toward a different audience than the one Kerry’s targeting here, but the goals remain the same: Building low-cost housing, vocational training; assistance to the elderly; and national parks service. Kerry says that “while there is no substitute for trained professionals, national service efforts like these can make enormous contributions to our country,” and I agree.

I should point out that Kerry would not require grant recipients to use the money for tuition: “Young people will be able to use their educational awards to pay off student loans if they have already finished college or to enter job training, start a small business, or buy a first home.” He clearly intends here to build on AmeriCorps, the Clinton program that’s been dying on the vine during the Bush years. If done right and managed properly, this is nothing but a good thing.

Now for the 300,000 part-timers. Kerry calls on “America’s college students to join a national crusade to help America’s children succeed in school and get to college.” They’ll do this by:

Helping Prepare At-Risk Preschoolers for School (100,000 people). Through Head Start and “other early childhood programs,” members will “provide one-on-one attention and support classroom teachers.”

Tutoring Young Children in Reading (100,000 people). “Studies have shown that college students who tutor young children three times a week as part of a structured classroom intervention or afterschool program achieve measurable improvements in children’s reading achievements. These tutors can help America meet its commitment to help every child read fluently by the end of the third grade.”

Mentoring At-Risk Teens (100,000 people). “Having recently made the transition to higher education themselves, college students can play a unique role in helping at-risk teens find their way to college,” through programs like GEAR UP.

So. This all sounds great, right? Even the most flinty-eyed conservative would have a hard time arguing against national service programs, as long as they’re really paid for. And as it happens, Kerry seems to have found an extra $14 billion lying around with which to fund these programs. Here’s his plan:

Student Loan Reform. Kerry wants to take a two-pronged approach here. First, he identifies a problem with “the subsidized and guaranteed profits for banks making student loans” which are “set in statutes written by lobbyists.” Kerry’s approach will be to open up the system to competitive bidding, “requiring banks to bid…for the business of student loans,” and (presumably) passing the savings on to the taxpayer. He also intends to close a loophole in the law that currently allows banks to pocket the difference when student payments exceed the government interest rate on loans.

In other words, the government guarantees lenders a certain interest rate on student loans. This rate, for example, is currently set at 3.4%; when the rate paid by the students is lower than this, the government makes up the difference. When the student rate is higher than the government rate, however, the banks keep the extra money. According to the CBO, this amounts to $12 billion. If you’re wondering how this plan is affected when student interest rates are at historic lows, consider that the current rate of 3.37% is the lowest ever…and it’s still below the rate banks are earning.

Reform of the Higher Education Act. Here, Kerry targets banks who “manipulate the Higher Education Act to receive a 9.5% interest rate.” This will save, again according to the CBO, $2 billion.

Ultimately what we appear to have here is a $13 billion program, which Kerry proposes to fund with $14 billion in public money, which is currently being used to line the pockets of banking executives. It’s the best of both worlds: a liberal program funded through conservative means.

Next time: Kerry’s plan to “End the Era of Ashcroft”…

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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