Good intentions, bad idea

Published 9:59 pm Friday, July 27, 2012

It was good to see the Virginia Board of Education put the brakes on a proposal by the Suffolk School Board to require volunteer service in the community as a prerequisite for graduation from Suffolk Public Schools. Unfortunately, based on the comments by members of the Board of Education, it appears that its denial of the request is only temporary.

Suffolk School Superintendent Deran Whitney presented the school system’s request in Richmond on Thursday, seeking the green light from the commonwealth’s Department of Education to proceed with the new requirement, whose adoption would mean nearly all Suffolk public school students would be required to perform at least 50 hours of community service while in high school in order to receive their diplomas.

Members of the Board of Education expressed general agreement with the Suffolk School Board’s goal of indoctrinating students with respect for the value of helping others. The state agency’s representatives must approve of the change, because it would place an extra burden on Suffolk students beyond the state’s normal requirements. Generally, they seemed inclined to support the measure on Thursday, though they withheld approval until city schools officials can resolve a few technical issues that otherwise could cause problems.

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The one-year reprieve Suffolk gets before implementation should give school officials plenty of time to think about the misguided nature of this new policy — and plenty of time to rescind it before it can contribute to the further deterioration of real education in the name of furthering the feel-good philosophy of pop psychology.

There’s nothing wrong with — in fact, there is much that is good about — young people volunteering to do good things for their fellow man. But public schools are not the place where the values of generosity, self-sacrifice and brotherly love should be taught. Those values should originate at home, taught by parents who live them and share them with their children from the time they’re young, rather than waiting until they’re in high school.

Forced volunteerism is just work — in this case work whose payment is a high school diploma. Requiring students to “volunteer” is unlikely to teach them to be generous with their own time and talents, just as requiring them to pay taxes has been unsuccessful in training people to be personally generous with their money. People do the things they have to do because they have to do them, and there is usually little joy in doing so. Nobody sends his tax payment folded inside a thank you card on the first day of tax season.

Much as we’ve all learned to maximize our tax deductions yet still expect government to be philanthropic on our behalf, what’s likely to be learned by the student-volunteers are the best ways to scheme the 50-hour requirement and skate by with as little effort as possible. Who will judge the quality of the work or its quantity? What will happen if a student fails to complete 50 hours — will she not be allowed to graduate? And what of the student who spends 50 nonproductive, unhelpful hours refusing to do any actual work on behalf of his chosen or assigned nonprofit organization? Will he be given his diploma anyway?

As with many such ideas, this proposal had its basis in a desire to do something good — to teach altruism as a value in high school. As with so many of those well-intentioned plans, though, this one falls apart under the pressure of reality, the reality that schools will never be equipped or able to do the jobs that parents should do. Schools have enough on their plates already.