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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Earmarks and We the People

Larry Gerston, professor of political science at San Jose State University, writes at the San Jose Mercury News:

Ending earmarks has become the mantra for making all things right in Washington. Why not? Critics have pointed to Alaska's bridge to nowhere, a teapot museum, and an opera house upgrade as recent examples of reckless spending in Washington. In that vein, criticisms are more than justified and long overdue.

But here's the catch: All earmarks are cast in the same light.

A case in point is the We the People program conducted by the nonprofit Center for Civic Education. For a quarter-century, the program has helped educators work with school children on portfolio-based curricula that promote civic engagement and the practice of democracy.

The idea is that by teaching students about the public policy process, students can better understand the system and their role in it. During the current fiscal year, the center has received $26.5 million from Congress to carry out this work. (Full disclosure: For the past decade I have had the privilege of working with educators who use We the People in their classes.)

Over the past quarter-century, 30 million students from elementary schools through college have participated in these group projects. In some instances, their proposals have been adopted by state or local legislators as public policies. A few years ago, for example, the California Legislature changed the voter registration process as a result of the recommendations from a class doing Project Citizen, a We the People application.

As an "earmark," this program now faces the loss of federal funding and possible extinction.