Guard youth program focus of bipartisan budget battle

An increase in federal funding for a popular National Guard at-risk-youth program has not been included in the House Defense Authorization bill despite strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate and a recommendation by the Department of Defense that the program receive additional federal aid.

patrick g. ryan
National Guardsmen deploy in downtown Washington.

The National Guard Youth Challenge Program (NGYCP), authorized as a pilot program in the 1993 defense authorization bill and made permanent in 1998, sends high school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 18 through six months of intensive training, followed by a minimum one-and-a-half-year mentoring program.

The program has graduated more than 56,000 students and grown to include 29 sites in 24 states.

Until 1998, the costs were shared between the state and federal governments, with the latter paying 75 percent. In 1998, the ratio was changed to 60-40 because of budget concerns, which puts the program “at the mercy of shrinking state budgets,” according to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

An amendment to this year’s defense authorization bill — introduced by Byrd and approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee — would change the ratio back to 75-25 over the next three years and add $15 million to the program’s budget in fiscal 2006. The issue is likely to arise during conference negotiations in June.

“The Youth Challenge Program gives high school dropouts the skills they need to turn their lives around,” Bryd said in March when he introduced a stand-alone bill to change the funding ratio. Other strong Senate supporters of the program include Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose son graduated from the program.

Opponents of the change argue that the program is not mission-critical and should not be funded through the Department of Defense. In March 2004, the Defense Department recommended an increase in federal support for the program.

Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.), one of the most vocal proponents of the program in the House who favors returning to the 60-40 funding ratio, argues that a significant percentage of graduates go into the military, including 18 percent in Louisiana, and that its roots in the National Guard are essential to the program’s success. Baker is producing an informational DVD to distribute to fellow lawmakers before the conference.

“It is an incredible program. There is nothing that reaches out to troubled youth as effectively as this does,” Baker said. “But it is difficult to operate the program without a significant level of [federal] assistance. It’s a much less expensive program than the alternatives.” In Louisiana, the basic six-month program has been expanded, with the help of private donors, to include a job training element lasting from three months to three years.

Enrollees, who must enter the program voluntarily and be drug-free, undergo intense physical, academic and social training. On average, students increase their reading skills by 1.7 grade levels and their math ability by 1.8 grade levels, at a cost of $14,000 per student to the state and federal government.

“It’s the most cost-effective program in the federal government,” said the program’s executive director, Greg Sharp, adding that the average per-person cost of incarceration is $40,000 and that 80 percent of adults in jail are high school dropouts.