WHEN HE LAUNCHED his candidacy for governor of New York, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo bemoaned the lack of a “meaningful back bench” for the 42% of state government workers eligible to retire in the next five years. At a time when New York government is widely viewed as dysfunctional, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to enlist a new generation of talented, highly skilled public servants.
That has been the hopeful ideal ever since President John F. Kennedy expressed it half a century ago. Despite the present difficulties, there are promising signs that we can now make it real. In fact, the Cuomo campaign has offered a promising start by articulating a plan to create scholarships for outstanding undergraduate and graduate students who commit to three years of service in “mission-critical positions” in state government after they graduate.
The plan would help make public service not only an honorable profession, but an affordable one as well.
If we don’t act, we will face an increasing service gap. More than 37,000 state employees have finished their public careers within the past six years. Tens of thousands more are expected to do so by 2015. Who will take their place and, in a time of increasing complexity and fiscal scarcity, take up challenges decisive for our future – from improving educational outcomes in low-income and middle-class communities, to updating transportation networks, opening new pathways to affordable housing and equipping workers with the new skills of the global age?
As dean of NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, I see graduates of programs like ours as creators of that future. Our students explore and analyze issues as wide-ranging as the benefits and unintended consequences of offering pedestrians and bicyclists more space on major city thoroughfares like Broadway, the impact of New York State’s STAR exemption on school district property taxation, and the importance of providing access to anti-malaria nets in Cameroon, West Africa. Our graduates are ready to become innovators and leaders, not just working in state government, but making it work to resolve seemingly intractable problems and rise to the challenges of a transformed and transformative era.
But here’s the often-insurmountable barrier: While these talented young people have a deep commitment to public issues and a passion for public service, too many have to make too much of a financial sacrifice if they follow their idealism into the public sector. Some feel they have to enter the more lucrative private sector to pay off loans. And countless other graduates of law schools, business schools and medical schools never even consider asking what they could do in public endeavors. Scholarships in return for service can be essential to enabling the brightest and most committed students to choose service – not just from schools of government, but from other disciplines as well.
“I know a number of people who wanted to work in public service but went in a more profit-oriented direction because of the cost,” is how Dominique West – a 28-year-old Harlem resident who received a master of public administration degree from NYU Wagner last year – put it to me.
West, an outstanding former high school teacher who pioneered a program that helped University of California, Berkeley – her alma mater – recruit and retain students from underrepresented groups, is currently pursuing her dream, at the city Education Department, of working at a policy level to improve urban schools. But her $60,000 graduate school debt casts a shadow across her commitment. The Cuomo scholarship proposal or something like it could free thousands of promising young people from facing a similar dilemma.
We all know that New York State has a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. People will wonder how we can afford to pay for such a program. A more foresighted question, however, would be how can we afford not to? The costs of incubating excellence in the next generation of public service would be repaid countless times, in manifold ways, with the development of the more responsive, creative and effective public sphere we so sorely need.
If legislators are serious about strengthening the pipeline to public careers, they must meet this challenge. Regardless of who occupies the governor’s mansion in 2011, let’s make sure that in years to come, we bring the best to work for us all across state government.
(This op-ed article by Ellen Schall, dean of NYU Wagner, originally appeared in the July 12, 2010, edition of the New York Daily News.)