oversight

National Service Programs: Role of State Commissions in Implementing the AmeriCorps Program

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-02-20.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                 United States General Accounting Office

GAO              Report to the Congress




February 1997
                 NATIONAL SERVICE
                 PROGRAMS
                 Role of State
                 Commissions in
                 Implementing the
                 AmeriCorps Program




GAO/HEHS-97-49
      United States
GAO   General Accounting Office
      Washington, D.C. 20548

      Health, Education, and
      Human Services Division

      B-275765

      February 20, 1997

      The Honorable Christopher S. Bond
      Chairman, Subcommittee on VA, HUD,
        and Independent Agencies
      Committee on Appropriations
      United States Senate

      The Honorable Charles E. Grassley
      United States Senate

      With the National and Community Service Trust Act (the act) of 1993 (P.L.
      103-82), the Congress created the largest national and community service
      program since the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. AmeriCorps,
      the act’s signature program, is jointly administered by the Corporation for
      National and Community Service (the Corporation) and state
      commissions. AmeriCorps allows participants to earn education awards to
      help pay for postsecondary education in exchange for performing
      community service that matches priorities established by the Corporation.
      In an era marked by fiscal austerity, AmeriCorps has experienced
      substantial growth relative to other domestic programs in budgetary
      terms. Through fiscal year 1997, the Congress has appropriated over
      $800 million to support about 100,000 AmeriCorps participants. Amid
      concerns over costs and internal controls, however, considerable
      congressional oversight activity has accompanied AmeriCorps’
      appropriations.

      Several studies of the Corporation’s first operating year have been
      completed. Between January 1995 and May 1996, at the request of the
      Congress, we conducted three studies that focused on AmeriCorps
      program resources and benefits. In March 1996, the Corporation’s
      Inspector General issued five reports on the Corporation’s financial
      management systems and its 1994 AmeriCorps National Direct grant
      award process. The results from these reviews prompted several initiatives
      aimed at lowering AmeriCorps’ costs.

      Under the Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of
      1996 (P.L. 104-134) and the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of
      1997 (P.L. 104-208), the Congress mandated new funding restrictions for
      the Corporation. One provision makes federal agencies ineligible to
      receive AmeriCorps grants, while another directs the Corporation, to the
      greatest extent possible, (1) to increase the amount of matching




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    contributions provided by the private sector and (2) to reduce
    AmeriCorps’ total federal cost per participant. Among the program
    reforms contemplated during the 1996 appropriation process, some
    Members of Congress expressed interest in scaling back AmeriCorps’
    federal bureaucracy and transferring more program management to state
    commissions.

    To better gauge state commissions’ capacity to absorb additional program
    management responsibility, the Congress mandated through the Omnibus
    Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act that we study state
    commission programs. Because of your long-standing interest in
    AmeriCorps, we coordinated our work with representatives from your
    offices and agreed to address our report to you. On the basis of
    discussions with your staff, we agreed to provide information on the
    following three issues:

•   the statutory role of state commissions,
•   state commission operations, including project-level1 outputs from
    national service projects within their purview, such as participant
    enrollment and expenditure data,
•   extending state commissions’ administrative and oversight role over
    AmeriCorps and correspondingly decreasing the federal government’s
    role.

    To conduct our work, we reviewed seven state commissions representing
    a range and mix of characteristics, including geographic location, level of
    Corporation grant funding, and number of AmeriCorps participants. Our
    state commission sample consisted of California, Maryland, Missouri,
    Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

    To address our research questions, we interviewed state commissioners,
    commission executive directors, AmeriCorps project directors, and
    Corporation officials. We also reviewed files at state commission offices to
    obtain program documentation or obtained documentation directly from
    commission officials.

    We also reviewed 24 AmeriCorps projects administered by the seven state
    commissions. We selected the projects on the basis of the type of service
    program, the level of Corporation funding, and whether the decision to

    1
     Throughout this report, we use the term “project” to describe the grantees or subgrantees of federal
    funds that are provided either by the Corporation or the state commissions to conduct national service
    activities authorized by the act. We use the term “program” to refer to AmeriCorps projects
    collectively.



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                   fund the project was made solely by the state commission or jointly with
                   the Corporation. For each project, we reviewed (1) expenditure data;
                   (2) data on participant enrollment, attrition, and education award usage;
                   and (3) information on projects’ service activities. Appendix I lists the
                   AmeriCorps projects we selected and briefly describes each project.

                   Where possible, we reviewed the most recent data available in comparing
                   the operations of the seven state commissions. For example, project
                   expenditure and enrollment data were for the 1994-95 program year—the
                   first, and only, completed program year for which such data were
                   available. The number of projects that state commissions were currently
                   administering at the time of our review were those funded with fiscal year
                   1995 federal funds. Finally, because of differences between the federal and
                   state governments’ fiscal years and the AmeriCorps program’s operating
                   year, we compared state commissions’ operating budgets on the basis of
                   their federal fiscal year 1996 allocations.

                   Because the data are self-reported and unverified, and we reviewed a
                   judgmentally selected sample of state commissions, our results cannot be
                   generalized beyond the commissions and programs studied. With these
                   exceptions, our work, done between July and November 1996, was in
                   accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.


                   By assigning state commissions significant responsibilities, the National
Results in Brief   and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, in effect, emphasizes state
                   control of the AmeriCorps program. These responsibilities include
                   developing a statewide service infrastructure, selecting and funding
                   AmeriCorps projects, and monitoring and evaluating projects. State
                   commissions directly control two-thirds of the federal funds available for
                   AmeriCorps projects. For fiscal year 1995, state commissions received
                   $131 million of $192 million available in federal funding.

                   Our review of seven state commissions indicated that all are performing
                   program management activities envisioned by the act but vary in terms of
                   their infrastructures and project outputs. For example, all seven state
                   commissions developed strategic plans to identify priority service needs
                   and selected and funded projects consistent with their plans. Operational
                   resources of the state commissions in our sample varied widely, however.
                   For example, while California’s commission employed 18 full-time
                   equivalent (FTE) staff and commanded a 1996 fiscal year budget of about
                   $1.3 million, Rhode Island’s commission employed 3.5 FTE staff and



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             managed a budget of $183,000 for the same period. For the selected
             projects, outputs also varied both within and among the state
             commissions. For example, the Washington commission’s projects had
             from 33 to 350 participants, and among the seven states, project
             expenditures ranged from $206,000 to $3.9 million.

             Officials from the seven state commissions agreed on the need for a
             federal role in AmeriCorps but disagreed on how much federal control is
             desirable. On one hand, all officials agreed that only a federal entity can
             provide AmeriCorps with a national identity, which they considered
             essential. On the other hand, they disagreed on the role the Corporation
             should play in allocating AmeriCorps funding grants. For example,
             California officials believed that all funds should be proportionally
             allocated to states based on population, leaving the Corporation no
             substantive role. Conversely, Rhode Island officials believed that the
             Corporation should allocate funds to states based on its judgment of the
             quality of the states’ projects, giving the Corporation a significant role.

             Senior Corporation officials agreed with state officials that a federal role is
             necessary to provide the AmeriCorps program with a national identity.
             They also stated that a federal role is necessary to conduct performance
             evaluations of national service projects and state commissions. These
             officials acknowledged that changes to the funding allocation process
             might better achieve the Corporation’s quality control objectives and said
             they may recommend changes to the Congress when it considers
             reauthorization of the act. Finally, Corporation officials noted that,
             notwithstanding their view that the act gave the states a substantial degree
             of control over the program, they have initiated actions to increase state
             commissions’ autonomy.


             In creating AmeriCorps, the Congress chartered a federal corporation to
Background   work with the states to fund local national and community service
             projects.2 The President appoints a chief executive officer and a
             15-member bipartisan board of directors that is confirmed by the Senate to
             govern the Corporation; each member serves a 5-year term. The board has
             the authority to review and approve the strategic plan and proposed grant

             2
              The Corporation also administers other programs. For example, the Learn and Serve America
             program incorporates service learning in the curriculum of students from kindergarten through
             graduate school. In addition, the National Senior Volunteer Corps program includes the Retired and
             Senior Volunteers, Foster Grandparent, and Senior Companion programs, which support community
             service by senior adults. These programs are funded through renewable project grants to public and
             private nonprofit organizations that work with schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other
             organizations that directly assign and supervise participants.



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                                            decisions. The Corporation provides grants to AmeriCorps projects
                                            directly and through states. To receive AmeriCorps funds, states must
                                            establish commissions on national service. These state commissions must
                                            have between 15 and 25 members and be composed of representatives
                                            from a variety of fields, including local government, existing national
                                            service programs, local labor organizations, and community-based
                                            organizations. Since AmeriCorps began, 48 states, the District of
                                            Columbia, and Puerto Rico have created commissions. These state
                                            commissions, in turn, subgrant AmeriCorps funds to local community
                                            service projects.


Federal and State Program                   The act gives critical program responsibilities to both the federal and state
Roles                                       governments. Because national service was intended to address
                                            community needs, the act sought to balance a centralized federal program
                                            role with state responsibility for planning, implementing, and overseeing
                                            most eligible AmeriCorps projects because state governments are thought
                                            to be closer to and therefore more knowledgeable about community
                                            needs. Although it directly selects and oversees some AmeriCorps
                                            projects, the Corporation is primarily responsible for establishing national
                                            criteria for determining projects’ eligibility for federal funds and for
                                            assisting the states in carrying out their program responsibilities. Both the
                                            Corporation and the states are jointly responsible for other program areas
                                            such as providing training and technical assistance to local AmeriCorps
                                            projects. Table 1 lists the Corporation’s and the states’ responsibilities.


Table 1: Federal and State National Service Program Responsibilities
Corporation for National and Community
Service                                     State commissions                            Corporation and state commissions
Determine national service needs            Determine state service needs and develop Provide assistance and training to local
                                            service infrastructure                    projects
Administer education award trust fund
                                            Issue applications for AmeriCorps funds      Evaluate projects
Promote national identity
                                            Select and fund certain state-administered   Develop strategies to leverage additional
Disburse grant funds to states              projects; preselect other projects for       funds to support projects
                                            competitive funding
Select and fund certain projects directly                                                Recruit, refer, and place AmeriCorps
                                            Administer state AmeriCorps projects         participants
Assist state commissions




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AmeriCorps*State/   AmeriCorps*State/National is the Corporation’s flagship AmeriCorps
National Program    program.3 AmeriCorps*State/National participants earn an education
                    award of up to $4,725 for full-time service or half that amount for part-time
                    service. A minimum of 1,700 hours of service within a year is required to
                    earn the full $4,725 award. To earn a part-time award, a participant must
                    perform 900 hours of community service within 2 years (or within 3 years
                    in the case of participants who are full-time college students). Individuals
                    can serve more than two terms; however, they can receive only federally
                    funded benefits, including education awards, for two terms. The
                    Corporation allows projects to devote some portion, not more than
                    20 percent, of participants’ service hours to nondirect service activities,
                    such as training or studying for the equivalent of a high school diploma.

                    With regard to attrition, participants can earn prorated education awards if
                    they are released for compelling personal circumstances, such as illness or
                    critical family matters, and have served at least 15 percent of their service
                    term. Participants released for cause are ineligible to receive an education
                    award and may disqualify themselves from future service in AmeriCorps.
                    Participants may be released for cause for a variety of reasons, including
                    being convicted of a felony, chronic truancy, or consistent failure to follow
                    directions. In addition, participants released for cause may include those
                    who leave a project early to take advantage of significant opportunities for
                    personal development or growth, such as educational or professional
                    advancement. Education awards, which are held in trust by the U.S.
                    Treasury, are paid directly to qualified postsecondary institutions or
                    student loan lenders and must be used within 7 years after service is
                    completed.

                    In addition to the education award, AmeriCorps*State/National
                    participants receive a living allowance stipend that is at least equivalent to,
                    but no more than double, the average annual living allowance received by
                    VISTA volunteers—about $7,500 for full-time participants in fiscal year 1996.
                    Additional benefits include health insurance and child care assistance for
                    participants who qualify for such support.

                    Individuals can join a national service project before, during, or after
                    postsecondary education, but must be a high school graduate, agree to


                    3
                     The other AmeriCorps programs are the AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and
                    the AmeriCorps*VISTA programs. NCCC recruits 18- to 24-year-olds for environmental service
                    activities. Members live on campuses at closed or downsized military facilities. VISTA (Volunteers in
                    Service to America), established in 1965, is a full-time service program that addresses poverty-related
                    problems. Participants serve with community-based public and private nonprofit organizations and
                    serve in capacity-building assignments.



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                            earn the equivalent of a high school diploma before receiving an education
                            award, or be granted a waiver by the project. A participant must be 17 or
                            older and be a citizen, a national, or a lawful permanent resident alien of
                            the United States. Selection of participants is not based on financial need.
                            In its fiscal year 1997 appropriations, the Corporation anticipated fielding
                            about 24,000 full- and part-time AmeriCorps*State/National participants.


Grant Award Protocols       The act created three types of grant awards as funding streams for
                            AmeriCorps*State/National projects: formula, competitive, and national
                            direct. The act lists criteria that state commissions and the Corporation
                            must use in selecting AmeriCorps projects for grant awards. The principal
                            criteria include project quality, innovation, and sustainability. In addition,
                            service projects must address community education, public safety, human,
                            or environmental needs. States may develop additional criteria, based on
                            identified service needs, to use in selecting projects for state formula
                            grants. Similarly, the Corporation develops additional criteria that reflect
                            particular national needs that states use to nominate projects for
                            competitive grant awards and that the Corporation uses to select projects
                            for national direct grants.

                        •   State formula grants: One-third of the funds appropriated for
                            AmeriCorps*State/National grants are distributed to state commissions
                            strictly on the basis of population. In fiscal year 1995, state commissions
                            were awarded about $67 million to support 262 projects using formula
                            grants.
                        •   State competitive grants: At least one-third of funds appropriated for
                            AmeriCorps*State/National grants are awarded to state commissions on a
                            competitive basis. The Corporation ranks the highest quality projects
                            among those submitted by the states for these funds. In fiscal year 1995,
                            the Corporation awarded another $64 million to state commissions to
                            finance 103 projects using competitive grants.
                        •   National direct grants: The Corporation competitively awards the
                            remaining appropriations to public or private nonprofit organizations,
                            institutions of higher education, or multistate organizations. In fiscal year
                            1995, the Corporation directly awarded about $58 million to support 57
                            projects using national direct grants.




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AmeriCorps*State/        AmeriCorps grantees use grant funds to pay up to 85 percent of the cost of
National Grantees        participants’ living allowances and benefits4 and up to 67 percent of other
                         project costs,5 including participant training, education, and service gear;
                         staff salaries, travel, transportation, supplies, and equipment; and project
                         evaluation and administrative costs. To ensure that federal Corporation
                         dollars are used to leverage other resources for project support, grantees
                         must also obtain support from non-Corporation sources to help pay for the
                         project. This support, which can be cash or in-kind contributions, may
                         come from other federal sources as well as state and local governments,
                         and private sources. In-kind contributions include personnel to manage
                         AmeriCorps*State/National projects and to supervise and train
                         participants; office facilities and supplies; and materials and equipment
                         needed in the course of conducting national service projects.


                         The National and Community Service Trust Act provides for extensive
National Service         state control of AmeriCorps. State commissions must develop strategic
Statute Provides State   plans that identify state educational, public safety, human, and
Control                  environmental service needs. On the basis of these plans and the act’s
                         criteria, commissions select projects to finance with formula grant funds
                         and nominate other projects to the Corporation as candidates for
                         competitive grants. Commissions have ultimate responsibility for
                         administering both formula and competitive awards. In addition,
                         commissions must monitor and evaluate the performance of the
                         AmeriCorps projects under their purview and assess projects’ compliance
                         with state and federal regulations. These reviews determine whether
                         commissions renew funding for AmeriCorps projects in succeeding years.

                         Commission officials in all seven states told us they used a grassroots
                         effort to develop their strategic plans and identify service needs. They said
                         they sought input from a broad cross-section of individuals and
                         organizations to ensure extensive input in identifying state service needs.
                         Most commission officials said they solicited public comment through
                         local and regional meetings and other public forums. For example, one
                         commission mailed meeting announcements to various government,
                         nonprofit, and community-based organizations. Another commission
                         mailed over 1,000 invitations to various service programs and individuals.
                         Another state commission used interactive computer technology to
                         coordinate input from 60 individuals collectively representing over 250
                         organizations.

                         4
                          For one benefit, child care, the Corporation pays 100 percent.
                         5
                          Before fiscal year 1997, grant funds paid up to 75 percent of these other project costs.



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                         After developing state plans and prioritizing service needs, commissions
                         used a variety of measures to identify, develop, and select AmeriCorps
                         projects. For example, while some commissions published
                         request-for-proposals packages, others solicited proposals from existing
                         community service and government agencies, and some held regional
                         meetings around the state where local organizations identified community
                         needs and proposed projects to address them. In general, state
                         commissions convened review panels to assess project proposals and rank
                         them according to how well they met the state’s needs and priorities as
                         established in the state’s strategic plan. One review panel was composed
                         only of the commissioners themselves; others used panels made up of
                         commissioners, commission staff, and local service project officials; while
                         another included citizens with academic and public service backgrounds.
                         State commissioners, using the results of these panels, then selected
                         projects to fund with the state’s allotted formula funds or to submit to the
                         Corporation for competition with other state commissions’ selections.

                         Commission officials in all seven states told us they based their project
                         monitoring and evaluation protocols on Corporation guidelines. Some
                         state commissions developed additional evaluation and monitoring
                         measures to ensure projects remain in compliance. Commission staff in
                         six of the states conducted project site visits, while in Texas,
                         commissioners themselves conducted on-site reviews. Typically, the
                         commissions used their site visit results and periodic reports submitted by
                         project administrators to determine whether projects effectively achieved
                         project objectives.


                         States chose to organize their commissions in a variety of ways. The seven
Commission               commissions we reviewed fell into one of three organizational models:
Operations               (1) part of a preexisting state agency; (2) an independent state agency; or
                         (3) a nonprofit agency. Five commissions operated within existing state
                         agencies. For example, the Virginia commission operated within the state’s
                         Department of Social Services. California created its commission as an
                         independent agency, while the Rhode Island legislature decided to charter
                         its state service commission as a nonprofit agency, thereby obtaining
                         tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.


Commission Budgets and   State commissions’ administrative budgets and their staffing levels varied
Staffing Vary            significantly among the seven states. For example, in terms of
                         administrative budgets, the Rhode Island commission managed about



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                                        $183,000, while the California commission managed over $1.3 million in
                                        fiscal year 1996. Also, in regard to staffing levels, the Virginia commission
                                        employed 1.5 FTE staff, while the California commission employed 18 FTE
                                        staff.

                                        Both federal and state government contributions defined state commission
                                        budgets and their staff resources. Under the act, the Corporation awards
                                        administrative grants of between $125,000 and $750,000 to states to help
                                        pay for commission operations. Federal administrative grants are limited
                                        to 85 percent of a commission’s costs in the first year and decrease to
                                        50 percent of costs in the fifth and subsequent operating years. States must
                                        contribute either cash or in-kind resources to obtain administrative grants.
                                        Among the seven states, the type (cash or in-kind) and amount of support
                                        provided by the state varied. Table 2 lists the commissions’ total budgets
                                        and staffing levels for fiscal year 1996.

Table 2: Fiscal Year 1996 Budgets and
Number of Full-Time Equivalent Staff    State                                                                 Budget             Staff (FTEs)
at Seven State Commissions              California                                                        $1,321,000                         18
                                        Maryland                                                              446,602                        13
                                        Missouri                                                              398,810                       2.5
                                        Rhode Island                                                          182,562                       3.5
                                        Texas                                                                 957,279                        10
                                        Virginia                                                              431,284                       1.5
                                        Washington                                                            481,394                         5
                                        Source: Corporation for National and Community Service and state commissions.




Number of State                         During the 1995-96 program year, the number of AmeriCorps projects in
Commission Projects                     the seven states varied depending on (1) the number of projects
Varied                                  commissions financed with their allotted formula funds, (2) the number of
                                        projects that won competitive funding, and (3) the number of projects
                                        funded directly by the Corporation rather than by the state commissions.
                                        The number of formula-funded projects ranged from a low of 1 in Rhode
                                        Island to a high of 19 in California. The number of projects awarded
                                        competitive grants ranged from none in Virginia to eight in Texas.6 The
                                        number of national direct projects administered by the Corporation in the
                                        seven states also varied. While only 1 national direct project operated in
                                        Virginia, 18 such projects operated in California. Table 3 lists the number

                                        6
                                         At the time of our visit, the Virginia state commission had never submitted projects to the Corporation
                                        for competitive funding.



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                                         of state commission formula and competitive projects and the number of
                                         national directs projects in each state.

Table 3: Projects for the 1995-96
Program Year, by Type and by State                                                               State commission
                                                                         State commission              competitive          National direct
                                         State                            formula projects                projects                projects
                                         California                                        19                       7                     18
                                         Maryland                                            4                      6                     10
                                         Missouri                                            5                      3                          4
                                         Rhode Island                                        1                      3                          3
                                         Texas                                             11                       8                     10
                                         Virginia                                            5                      0                          1
                                         Washington                                          5                      3                          7
                                         Source: Data provided by the Corporation for National and Community Service.




                                         For the 24 projects we reviewed, outputs and characteristics varied
Project Outputs Vary                     extensively. We reviewed information on enrollment, attrition, and
Considerably                             participants’ use of education awards for each project. In addition, we
                                         obtained data on projects’ expenditures and the source of projects’
                                         financial support. To calculate enrollment, we added the number of full-
                                         and part-time participants that began a term of service for each project.
                                         We calculated attrition rates on two bases: (1) the number of participants
                                         who ended service early for cause and (2) the combined total of
                                         participants who ended service early for cause and for compelling
                                         personal circumstances. We determined education award usage based on
                                         the number of participants who earned either a full or prorated education
                                         award and the number of participants who had used either part of or the
                                         full value of their awards at the time of our review. The following points
                                         illustrate the extent of variability among the projects:

                                     •   Participant enrollment: AmeriCorps enrollment ranged from 21 to 350
                                         participants. The median enrollment was about 46 participants.
                                     •   Attrition rates: The attrition rate for participants who ended service early
                                         for cause ranged from 3 to 58 percent. The median attrition rate was
                                         22 percent. The overall attrition rate—participants who ended service
                                         early for either cause or compelling personal circumstances—ranged from
                                         9 to 95 percent,7 and the median was 39 percent.

                                         7
                                          Most of the participants in one project were unable to complete a full-term of service because the
                                         project began operations late. According to Corporation records, education awards were prorated for
                                         these participants.



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                       •   Education award usage: The proportion of participants who accessed their
                           education award ranged from 17 to 78 percent. The median was
                           54 percent.

                           Appendix II lists projects’ enrollment, attrition rates, and participant
                           education award usage.


Project Expenditures       Project-level expenditures also varied widely. Our expenditure data
                           excluded funding for education awards and for state commission and
                           Corporation administrative expenses. Projects obtained cash support and
                           in-kind resources to cover their expenditures from the Corporation, other
                           federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector. The
                           projects’ expenditures ranged from $206,000 to $3.9 million. The median
                           expenditure was $627,000. The share of these expenditures that were
                           supported by the following sources was

                       •   corporation grants—08 to 78 percent (the median was 66 percent),
                       •   public sector resources—49 to 100 percent (the median was 83 percent),
                           and
                       •   private sector sources—0 to 51 percent (the median was 17 percent).

                           Figure 1 illustrates private sector support for all 24 projects. Appendix III
                           lists detailed expenditure data for all 24 projects.




                           8
                            For one project in our sample the Corporation is only funding education awards.



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Figure 1: Distribution of 24 Americorps
Projects by Proportion of Expenditures    Number of Projects
Covered by Private Sector Funding         8


                                          7


                                          6


                                          5


                                          4


                                          3


                                          2


                                          1


                                          0

                                                0-10%    11-20%    21-30%    31-40%    >40%
                                                Proportion of Expenditures Funded by Private Sector




Project Accomplishments                   One of the National and Community Service Trust Act’s objectives is to
                                          help the nation address its unmet human, education, environmental, and
                                          public safety needs. The projects included in our sample all reported
                                          diverse service activities that address one or more of these needs. While
                                          some projects’ service activities were focused on meeting a particular
                                          need within the community, such as housing, other projects’ activities
                                          addressed multiple areas of need, such as environmental and education
                                          needs. In the project reports we reviewed in detail, participants organized
                                          food programs that served 2,500 children; assisted with totally
                                          rehabilitating 16 vacant public housing units; operated a 7-week summer
                                          reading camp for 36 children; planted trees, removed debris, and created
                                          gardens improving 32 urban neighborhoods; and provided parenting
                                          classes to low-income families.


                                          State commissioners and executive directors in all seven states agreed
Officials Agree                           with senior Corporation officials that a federal role in the AmeriCorps
Federal Role Needed,                      program is needed. None of these officials believed that eliminating the
but Differ on Degree                      federal Corporation and simply allocating funds directly to state
                                          commissions would serve the program well. While some state officials told
of State Control                          us that the grant allocation process warrants significant change, other



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                      state officials noted the indispensability of federal oversight. Corporation
                      officials believed that a federal role is needed for conducting nationwide
                      data gathering on the AmeriCorps program, evaluating the performance of
                      AmeriCorps projects and state commissions, and providing a central
                      repository of information on the “best practices” of individual AmeriCorps
                      projects and state commission operations.


Federal Role Needed   All seven state commission executive directors agreed that a federal role is
                      necessary to provide the AmeriCorps program with a national identity.
                      According to these officials, a national identity helps AmeriCorps projects
                      obtain widespread public support. They told us that national identity
                      provides AmeriCorps participants with a sense that the benefits of their
                      service extend not only to themselves and their communities, but to the
                      whole nation. Furthermore, they said AmeriCorps’ name recognition and
                      positive reputation help local projects recruit participants. To promote
                      national identity, the Corporation provides AmeriCorps projects national
                      advertisement, service gear, and the means to network with other projects
                      across the country to share experience and knowledge. In addition, the
                      Corporation encourages projects to adhere to certain standardized
                      elements such as the ethic reflected by the Corporation’s slogan “getting
                      things done,” a standard orientation and pledge, and participation in
                      national events.

                      Most commission officials also welcomed the federal oversight of
                      AmeriCorps. Some officials told us that while reducing the federal role
                      could save money, a lack of oversight would spawn fraud, waste, and
                      abuse. Several commission officials, for example, expressed concern that,
                      without federal oversight, other state officials might bypass commission
                      offices and fund projects, regardless of whether they meet national service
                      priorities, to serve partisan agendas. Another official said that without a
                      federal role, the AmeriCorps program would become wholly dependent on
                      the support of the states’ executive leadership, noting a fear for the future
                      of their states’ AmeriCorps programs if elected governors do not support
                      national service.

                      Corporation officials agreed that a national identity for the AmeriCorps
                      program is important and that a federal role provides it. They also noted
                      that the federal government has a vital role in evaluating the AmeriCorps
                      program, sharing evaluation results with others, and developing and
                      increasing the evaluation capacity of state commissions. They believe that
                      such a role helps to address the disparity between state commissions’



                      Page 14                      GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
                           B-275765




                           competence and performance by, in part, serving as a central repository of
                           information on successful AmeriCorps projects and state commission
                           management strategies. Furthermore, evaluating projects and state
                           commissions ensures that federal taxpayer dollars are efficiently and
                           effectively used to finance legitimate national service projects.


Federal Grant Allocation   Commission officials in the seven states disagreed on whether states
                           should have more control over federal grant funds, particularly in terms of
                           allocating federal funds. Some commission officials supported allocating
                           all three types of grants (formula, competitive, and national direct) to the
                           states based on population. The California contingent advocated allocating
                           all AmeriCorps grant funds to states using a population-based formula.
                           California officials argued that the Corporation’s competitive grant-making
                           process is redundant because it occurs after states review and select
                           projects for funding on their own. In addition, these officials told us that
                           federal selection of AmeriCorps projects usurps the state commissions’
                           right to exercise their best judgment, expertise, and creativity in
                           administering national service projects in their states. Other officials told
                           us that the competitive grant-making process promotes equity and ensures
                           that the relatively higher quality projects receive funding. Officials in
                           Rhode Island argued that the competitive grant-making process provides a
                           more equitable distribution of national resources than strict
                           population-based allocations. They said that such simplistic methods
                           arbitrarily penalize states with small populations and reward states with
                           large populations, while ignoring the variability in quality among national
                           service projects.

                           Officials in other states told us that commissions themselves, rather than
                           individual projects, should compete for federal grants. Officials in
                           Maryland and Texas told us that the Corporation should allocate federal
                           AmeriCorps grants to states on the basis of commissions’ demonstrated
                           ability to effectively manage quality national service projects in their
                           states. They argued that the Corporation should treat different states
                           differently, taking into account states’ unique service needs. Neither
                           Maryland nor Texas officials, however, had developed a set of suggested
                           criteria for the Corporation to use to make such determinations.

                           Senior Corporation officials told us that they are not certain the
                           competitive process used, in part, to allocate funds to state commissions
                           achieves the quality control over project selection that was originally
                           anticipated. They oppose, however, allocating all available funding to state



                           Page 15                      GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
                           B-275765




                           commissions based simply on population demographics. Corporation
                           officials stated that such a method does not take into account the differing
                           abilities of state commissions to administer and oversee AmeriCorps
                           projects, noting that two states have yet to even appoint state
                           commissions. In addition, these officials believe that national direct
                           projects play an important role in the AmeriCorps program and should
                           receive grants directly from the Corporation. While these officials told us
                           that in the future the Corporation may recommend that the Congress
                           change the act’s grant allocation process, they had no specific proposals
                           for the Congress to consider at the time of our review.


Coordination With          Some state commission officials we visited told us that giving states more
National Direct Projects   control over the AmeriCorps program would eliminate or alleviate current
                           problems they have coordinating with AmeriCorps projects operating in
                           their state. Historically, national direct projects were not required to
                           coordinate with state commission officials, which some commission
                           officials cited as a point of frustration. These officials told us that the
                           public holds them culpable for the actions of national direct AmeriCorps
                           projects because the public does not distinguish between national direct
                           projects and state-administered projects. In addition, some state
                           commission officials said they doubt that out-of-state nonprofits fully
                           understand the needs of local communities in their states.

                           Corporation officials acknowledged the difficulties that some states have
                           experienced coordinating with national direct projects. To ameliorate this
                           problem, an official said that as of January 1997, the Corporation requires
                           national direct grantees to coordinate with the relevant state commission
                           officials. In addition, in the future, state commissions can provide
                           comments on the Corporation’s national direct grant selections, which
                           these Corporation officials believe will also help eliminate this
                           coordination problem.

                           Corporation officials told us, however, that national direct grants play an
                           essential program role. They argued that community service is central to
                           the mission of many national nonprofit organizations and that these
                           organizations are, by and large, the recipients of such grants. Specifically,
                           these officials believe that national direct grants help (1) attract national
                           nonprofit organizations to the AmeriCorps program, (2) achieve a more
                           efficient and less bureaucratic method of administering projects that
                           operate in several states, and (3) recruit nonprofit organizations with the
                           economies of scale that could allow the Corporation to dramatically



                           Page 16                       GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
                  B-275765




                  decrease its per-participant costs by funding only the portion of projects’
                  expenses associated with providing participants their education awards.


                  In commenting on our report, the Corporation stated that in calculating
Agency Comments   attrition rates, we should not have included participants who leave
                  projects early to take advantage of opportunities for educational or
                  professional advancement because such departures do not reflect on
                  program quality. We did not, however, use attrition rates or any other
                  output as a project quality index and, therefore, did not modify our
                  calculations. Although the Corporation believes that the term “outputs”
                  should characterize only project accomplishments, we use the term to
                  characterize participant enrollment, project attrition, education award
                  usage, and project expenditures—a use of the term that is consistent with
                  long-standing conventions of social science research.

                  The Corporation also stated that a complete analysis of education award
                  usage may not be available for several years because participants have up
                  to 7 years to use their awards. Our education award calculation represents
                  a snapshot in time, and our report describes the 7-year interval. The
                  Corporation suggested other changes that were primarily technical and
                  editorial in nature. We revised the report as appropriate, defining our use
                  of the terms “project” and “program,” for instance, and clarifying that we
                  used the most current and appropriate data available for our analysis.


                  We are sending copies of this report to the appropriate House and Senate
                  committees and other interested parties. We will also make copies
                  available to others on request.

                  If you have any questions about this report, please call me at
                  (202) 512-7014 or Jeff Appel, senior evaluator, at (617) 565-7513. This
                  report was prepared under the direction of Wayne B. Upshaw, Assistant
                  Director. Ben Jordan, evaluator, also contributed to this report.




                  Cornelia M. Blanchette
                  Associate Director, Education
                    and Employment Issues


                  Page 17                      GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
Contents



Letter                                                                                                1


Appendix I                                                                                           20

Description of 24
Selected Americorps
Projects, by State
Appendix II                                                                                          22

Detailed Information
on Project
Enrollment, Attrition,
and Education Award
Usage for the 1994-95
Program Year
Appendix III                                                                                         24

24 Americorps Project
Expenditures for the
1994-95 Program Year,
by Resource Stream
Tables                   Table 1: Federal and State National Service Program                          5
                           Responsibilities
                         Table 2: Fiscal Year 1996 Budgets and Number of Full-Time                   10
                           Equivalent Staff at Seven State Commissions
                         Table 3: Projects for the 1995-96 Program Year, by Type and by              11
                           State

Figure                   Figure 1: Distribution of 24 AmeriCorps Projects by Proportion of           13
                           Expenditures Covered by Private Sector Funding


                         Abbreviations

                         FTE        full-time equivalent
                         NCCC       National Civilian Community Corps
                         VISTA      Volunteers in Service to America


                         Page 18                     GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
Page 19   GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
Appendix I

Description of 24 Selected Americorps
Projects, by State


Project                                        Participant activities
California
Bay Area Youth Agency Consortium               Participants work to meet the needs of at-risk youth through peer counseling, health
AmeriCorps Project                             education/outreach, gang intervention, conflict resolution, alcohol/drug counseling and
                                               education, outreach to homeless youth, after-school recreation, tutoring, and child care.
Building Up Los Angeles                        Participants serve in a citywide partnership to develop neighborhood-based service
                                               projects. Members mentor/tutor community youth, provide training in conflict
                                               management skills, and engage individuals in physical improvement projects.
California Conservation Corps AmeriCorps       Participants serve in teams to plan and perform activities, including rural and urban
                                               environmental projects, trail construction and maintenance, tree planting, city
                                               infrastructure maintenance, and organizing city youth activities.
East Bay Conservation Corps AmeriCorps         Participants tutor and counsel at-risk youth, develop and operate after-school programs,
Collaborative                                  deliver basic health care services, and implement physical improvement projects
                                               through a 19- organization partnership.
Maryland
Appalachian Service Through Action and         Participants provide independent living assistance and health care to homebound
Resources                                      elderly individuals, enlarge area food pantries, create youth literacy programs, and
                                               develop educational programs for Head Start students in Appalachian Maryland.
Maryland Students Taking Responsibility for    Participants tutor low-income students, in a tri-county area, using a cascading
Tomorrow                                       leadership model. Participants supervise high school students who, in turn, act as
                                               mentors and tutors for middle and elementary school students.
United Youth Corps of Maryland                 Participants work in rural, urban, and suburban areas of the state through a collaboration
                                               among the Maryland Conservation Corps, Civic Works, and Community Year.
                                               Participants work to stabilize soil erosion, build community gardens, and rehabilitate
                                               homes for low-income families.
Enhancing Neighborhood Action by Local         Participants conduct home visits to the chronically ill and provide health service referrals.
Empowerment                                    Participants also tutor first-grade students, develop structured after-school
                                               intergenerational activities, and teach school readiness skills to preschool children.
Missouri
Grace Hill AmeriCorps RiverFront Trail Project Participants help conserve the Mississippi Riverfront by restoring and beautifying trails.
                                               Participants work to increase the educational success of urban youth by organizing
                                               outdoor recreational and educational activities and by planning weekly summer
                                               educational events.
Come as You Are Project                        Participants serve the St. Joseph area by developing academic laboratories in schools,
                                               organizing and conducting neighborhood cleanup projects and recycling programs, and
                                               working with children to establish community gardens that provide food to local food
                                               pantries.
Southeast Missouri Partnership for             Participants work to reduce violence against children by recruiting tutors and mentors to
Community Service                              work with high-risk youth, developing a literacy program for parents, developing
                                               after-school and summer programs, and working with juvenile authorities to develop
                                               service projects for youthful offenders.
St. Louis Partners for Service                 Participants work to increase the capacity of schools to improve the achievement of
                                               fourth- through eighth-graders in low-income communities and identify and train
                                               volunteers to develop service projects in literacy, the environment, first aid and personal
                                               safety, and substance abuse prevention.
                                                                                                                                (continued)




                                               Page 20                            GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
                                            Appendix I
                                            Description of 24 Selected Americorps
                                            Projects, by State




Project                                     Participant activities
Rhode Island
Leadership, Education and Service           Participants provide a range of services for at-risk students of all ages, including
Enterprise                                  preschool assistance, tutoring for school-aged youth and adults, and referral services.
City Year, Rhode Island                     Participants serve in teams to strengthen communities by tapping the resources of local
                                            residents, business, and nonprofit organizations. Participants provide services such as
                                            mentoring/tutoring students from kindergarten through seventh grade and participating
                                            in community gardening, low-income housing, and after-school programming.
Texas
Casa Verde Builders Program                 Participants work to improve low-income areas by building energy-efficient homes using
                                            least toxic materials and alternative building methods. Participants also renovate and
                                            weatherize existing homes to save on energy costs.
Making Connections for Children and Youth   Participants serve children living in poverty by offering nutritious food and enrichment
                                            activities at summer food sites, tutoring and mentoring at schools, providing violence
                                            prevention/conflict resolution activities, and facilitating access to health care.
Parenting Education Project                 Participants provide parenting education services at schools and community nonprofit
                                            organizations. Participants conduct home visits, community outreach and recruitment,
                                            teen parent mentoring, and developmental screening, and provide child care for teen
                                            parent students.
Serve Houston Youth Corps                   Participants operate after-school service-learning programs in elementary schools.
                                            Participants work in teams with other youth from varied backgrounds to strengthen the
                                            community in areas including the environment, hunger and homelessness reduction, and
                                            public safety.
Virginia
Service to Alexandria                       Participants work to rehabilitate, revitalize, and maintain public housing units in their own
                                            communities.
Virginia Commonwealth University            Participants serve as outreach workers for community-based organizations that provide
AmeriCorps                                  tutoring/mentoring, parenting skill workshops, physical exams and immunizations,
                                            conflict resolution training, and prenatal health education.
Washington
AmeriCorps Youth in Service                 Participants teach conflict resolution skills, provide tutoring and frontline gang
                                            intervention, and implement after-school, late night, and summer recreation programs for
                                            rural and Native American youth. Participants also provide independent living support to
                                            mentally ill adults.
Spokane Service Team                        Participants rehabilitate low-income housing units and construct new housing for
                                            emergency and transitional living. Participants also work to restore habitats for native
                                            plants, vegetation, and wildlife. They are also involved in developing recreational areas
                                            in state parks and improving hiking and biking trails.
Educational Conservation Corps              Participants work to improve water quality and restore a reduced salmon population by
                                            rehabilitating damaged watersheds and building fences to prevent erosion.
Washington AmeriCorps                       Participants serve in various agencies across the state on a wide range of projects,
                                            including developing a statewide literacy initiative for recent immigrants, providing at-risk
                                            youth with service alternatives to gang activity, and concentrating services to a needy,
                                            isolated Native American reservation.




                                            Page 21                            GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
Appendix II

Detailed Information on Project Enrollment,
Attrition, and Education Award Usage for
the 1994-95 Program Year


               Project                                                                Total enrolled
               Bay Area Youth Agency Consortium AmeriCorps Project                               60
               Building Up Los Angeles                                                          125
               Califoria Conservation Corps AmeriCorps                                          135
               East Bay Conservation Corps AmeriCorps Collaborative                             169
               Appalachian Service Through Action and Resources                                  32
               United Youth Corps of Maryland                                                   128
               Enhancing Neighborhood Action by Local Empowerment                                24
               Maryland Students Taking Responsibility for Tomorrow                              33
               St. Louis Partners for Service                                                    31
               Grace Hill AmeriCorps RiverFront Trail Project                                    38
               Southeast Missouri Partnership for Community Service                              41
               Come as You Are Project                                                           40
               Leadership, Education and Service Enterprise                                      25
               City Year, Rhode Island                                                           85
               Casa Verde Builders Program                                                       64
               Making Connections for Children and Youth                                         50
               Serve Houston Youth Corps                                                         64
               Parenting Education Project                                                       61
               Virgina Commonwealth University AmeriCorps                                        37
               Service to Alexandria                                                             21
               AmeriCorps Youth in Service                                                       43
               Spokane Service Team                                                              33
               Washington AmeriCorps                                                            350
               Educational Conservation Corps                                                    97




               Page 22                           GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
                                             Appendix II
                                             Detailed Information on Project Enrollment,
                                             Attrition, and Education Award Usage for
                                             the 1994-95 Program Year




    Participants who ended service       Participants who ended service
            early for cause                    early for all reasons
      Released for    Percentage of      Released for all   Percentage of              Education award usage
d           cause          enrolled             reasons          enrolled Earned an award      Used award Percentage used
0               10               17                    13                22                 50              20                40
5               26               21                    43                34                 87              29                33
5               14               10                    43                32                115              29                25
9               47               28                    76                45                118              64                54
2                8               25                    9                 28                 22              13                59
8               45               35                    50                39                 66              35                53
4                5               21                    10                42                 19              10                53
3                1                   3                 3                  9                 12               9                75
                 3               10                    7                 23                 28              19                68
8               13               34                    15                39                 22               5                23
                20               49                    23                56                 21              15                71
0               12               30                    21                53                 28              16                57
5                8               32                    10                40                 17              10                59
5               17               20                    17                20                 47              26                55
4               37               58                    38                59                 23               4                17
0               14               28                    21                42                 35              19                54
4                8               13                    18                28                 56              33                59
                10               16                    21                34                 50              18                36
7               16               43                    17                46                 21              13                62
                 3               14                    20                95                 17               3                18
3                7               16                    9                 21                 36              28                78
3                4               12                    19                58                 28               7                25
0               80               23                    94                27                254             137                54
7               37               38                    41                42                 58              20                34




                                             Page 23                           GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
Appendix III

24 Americorps Project Expenditures for the
1994-95 Program Year, by Resource Stream


                                                                                       Other federal
Project                                                    Corporation                 Cash                   In-kind
Bay Area Youth Agency Consortium AmeriCorps Project          $756,587                    $0                       $0
Building Up Los Angeles                                      1,415,016                    0                        0
California Conservation Corps AmeriCorps                       637,595              293,641                  500,000
East Bay Conservation Corps AmeriCorps Collaborative         2,020,649                    0                    8,500
Appalachian Service Through Action and Resources               341,935                    0                        0
United Youth Corps of Maryland                               1,767,517                    0                        0
Enhancing Neighborhood Action by Local Empowerment             222,605                    0                        0
Maryland Students Taking Responsibility for Tomorrow           262,672                5,681                        0
St. Louis Partners for Service                                 368,812                    0                        0
Grace Hill AmeriCorps RiverFront Trail Project                 270,114                    0                        0
Southeast Missouri Partnership for Community Service           308,093                    0                        0
Come as You Are Project                                        218,659                    0                        0
City Year, Rhode Island                                        826,835                    0                        0
Leadership, Education and Service Enterprise                   251,495                    0                   16,812
Casa Verde Builders Program                                    975,009              799,635                        0
Serve Houston Youth Corps                                      937,315               40,325                        0
Parenting Education Project                                    759,110                    0                        0
Making Connections for Children and Youth                      445,646               24,985                        0
Service to Alexandria                                          269,860                    0                        0
Virginia Commonwealth University AmeriCorps                    154,287                    0                        0
Educational Conservation Corps                                      0               626,639                        0
AmeriCorps Youth in Service                                    304,233                    0                        0
Spokane Service Team                                           254,319                    0                        0
Washington AmeriCorps                                        2,399,965                    0                   54,241




                                                 Page 24          GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
                                   Appendix III
                                   24 Americorps Project Expenditures for the
                                   1994-95 Program Year, by Resource Stream




                 State               Local government                           Private Sector
d             Cash       In-kind        Cash             In-kind                 Cash             In-kind        Total
0               $0           $0              $0               $0          $257,921               $145,040   $1,159,548
0                0            0              0                 0            199,877               203,090    1,817,983
0           563,584      122,986       69,580            311,387                23,361              8,650    2,530,784
0            13,299       28,164      142,488            239,681            190,326               102,567    2,745,674
0            23,894      235,075       31,336                  0                     0                 0       632,240
0                0        37,712       75,263             14,300            351,309                23,148    2,269,249
0           152,535       11,500             0                 0                78,568                 0       465,208
0                0            0              0                 0                     0             92,548      360,901
0                0            0              0                 0                68,895            168,604      606,311
0                0            0              0                 0            114,731                47,920      432,765
0            11,464       46,517       11,050             36,997                   226              3,718      418,065
0                0            0              0                 0                20,974             43,867      283,499
0                0            0              0                 0            270,163               144,142    1,241,140
2                0            0              0            29,518                35,736                 0       333,561
0                0            0       469,819                  0            143,590                60,000    2,448,053
0                0            0              0                 0            205,768                95,070    1,278,478
0            51,366       45,714       78,540             11,636                93,083             23,271    1,062,720
0                0            0              0                 0            112,816                    0       583,447
0                0            0        69,117             80,000                     0                 0       418,977
0            24,496       27,067             0                 0                     0                 0       205,850
0           953,592           0       152,261                  0                     0                 0     1,732,492
0                0            0              0                 0                57,646            259,330      621,209
0           103,448       34,000       23,465                  0                94,226             25,770      535,227
            683,281       75,314             0           512,041                     0            208,597    3,933,438




 (104875)                          Page 25                           GAO/HEHS-97-49 Role of AmeriCorps State Commissions
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