Less Fed, More Ed: Let States Make Schools Really Accountable

by Lindsey Burke

ALL BUT UNNOTICED THIS SUMMER, the Obama administration busily advanced its plan to implement national education standards and tests. The administration’s national standards agenda is an overreach made possible by a $100 billion “bonus” given to the federal Department of Education in last year’s “stimulus” bill.

The infusion of taxpayer money effectively doubled the agency’s budget, an exclamation point added to decades of increased funding. Combined federal, state, and local education spending exceeds $10,000 a year per student—yet academic achievement has stagnated and graduation rates have flatlined.

Now, with tens of billions more at its disposal, the Obama administration seeks to impose “reforms” through the Department of Education without the consideration of the American people or the consent of Congress.

The federal educrats have already developed national standards but are pondering how to implement them and assess results. State education officials must overhaul or junk existing standards and tests developed at taxpayers’ expense with input from local leaders.

Many states agreed to adopt the national standards as a result of Race to the Top, the administration’s $4.35 billion program of competitive grants. Indeed, heeding White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “never let a serious crisis go to waste,” the educrats dangled grants in front of cashstarved states to get them to sign on.

To lure holdout states, the administration has an ace up its sleeve: $14.5 billion in Title I funds set to be distributed among low-income school districts. The Department of Education proposes to make receipt of those funds contingent upon state adoption of its national standards. All this has produced little visible change … yet. But what can parents expect on back-to-school day in two or three years if national standards become a reality?

That all children will be held to the same high standards no matter where they live? That they’ll be able to compete with peers in Japan and Switzerland? That local schools will be more accountable for results?

Probably not.

National standards aren’t likely to produce a high bar of excellence for all students. True, many states need to push their standards higher. But that’s why the pull of states with very good standards—notably California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Virginia—is so important.

That upward pull will fade as national standards and tests fall prey to the same political pressures that led to the dumbing down of state standards. Those pressures include demands from teachers unions and other interest groups and a federal bureaucracy that funds schools instead of individual children’s education at a school of their choice.

As for making America more competitive, the evidence doesn’t show a correlation between national standards and student achievement. In fact, many countries have seen gains in recent years after decentralizing education. In Alberta, Canada, for example, parents can choose from a variety of educational options, including public schools, private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and schools that teach in French. The results of this system of choice have been very positive for the students. Alberta’s students ranked second in the world in science on the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment. They also ranked third in reading and fifth in math.

Finally, national standards won’t make schools more accountable to parents and taxpayers. A serious “show and tell” would reveal that standards serve Washington bean-counters, who are more interested in aggregated data on students than the enlightenment of an individual girl or boy.

Real reforms empower parents, not federal mediocrity. So here’s a better approach:

● Strengthen state-based accountability. Instead of signing on to common standards, state education leaders should follow the example of Massachusetts or Virginia in creating solid standards and assessments. As students become proficient, officials should raise the bar and challenge them to meet the demands of college coursework and competitive careers.

● Detail school performance. States should publish the scores required to pass specific tests and clearly define what it means for a student to be considered proficient. Otherwise, determining performance is like looking at a map without a scale to figure out the distance from starting point to destination.

● Allow parents to act. This is the crucial next step toward accountability and better results. Parents in Florida, for instance, have access to details on performance (including a grade from A to F for each school). Most importantly, they are free to choose where to enroll their kids based on that information.

No parent or taxpayer mindful of the next generation’s promise should accept a bigger brick wall erected by an unaccountable bureaucracy imposing one-size-fits-all standards. Decades of ever-mounting federal spending and control have yet to push up test scores and graduation rates. Instead, we have had failure and mediocrity. If the proof is in the pudding, how much pudding do we need?


Ms. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. A version of this article was first published by the Washington Times.

Rx for a Republic: Recovering Liberty in Health Care

by Robert Moffit

AMERICANS FACE A DIRECT AND HISTORIC challenge to their personal liberty and to their unique citizenship in a federal republic. Through its enactment of the massive Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), official Washington is not merely engineering a federal takeover of health care, but is also radically altering the relationships between individuals and the government as well as the national government and the states.

In other words, the PPACA is a direct threat to federalism itself. As Jonathan Turley, professor of law at George Washington University, has argued, “Federalism was already on life support before the individual mandate. Make no mistake about it, this plan might provide a bill of good health for the public, but it could amount to a ‘do not resuscitate’ order for federalism.”

Never before has Congress exercised its power under Article I, Section 8 of the Federal Constitution to force American citizens to purchase a private good or a service, such as a health insurance policy. Congress is also intruding deeply into the internal affairs of the states, commandeering their officers, specifying in minute detail how they are to arrange health insurance markets within their borders, and determining the products that will be sold to their citizens.

If allowed to stand, this unprecedented concentration of political power in Washington will result in the states being reduced to mere instruments of federal health policy rather than “distinct and independent sovereigns,” as James Madison described them in Federalist No. 40.

The High Stakes

The Founders in 1787 crafted fundamental law for a large federal republic, bucking the conventional wisdom of political science. In the classical sense, a republic means limited government; it underscores a sharp distinction between res publica (public affairs) and res privata (private affairs). In a republic, political authority is held as a public trust, not as a private right, and is to be exercised only over public affairs.

America’s Founders authorized a clear division of authority between a national government, focused on general concerns, and the particular governments of the states, focused on particular concerns. They thus recognized the astonishing unity and profound diversity of the people of the United States. In a free society, the people are sovereign, but in this instance, they are the people of the states united. National and state governments, under the Constitution, are supreme within their own spheres; neither can encroach upon the other without violating the constitutional order itself.

While Article VI declares the supremacy of federal law, its supremacy is confined to those limited and enumerated powers that are granted to the national government; the Tenth Amendment unambiguously affirms that the residual powers of the American Republic are left to the people in and through their several state governments. In Federalist No. 45, James Madison writes:

The powers delegated by the proposed constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite. … The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state. [Emphasis added.]

The Arrogance of Power

The Constitution is ultimately a political document, and the health care debate is ultimately a philosophical debate on the scope of political authority. If one’s health care and medical treatment is a personal matter and an exercise of personal responsibility, then the new law is quintessentially un-republican; for all practical purposes, it renders these intensely personal affairs a public concern. The imposition of an individual mandate to purchase health insurance is likewise an unconstitutional restriction on personal liberty, pregnant with potential abuses far beyond a mandate for health insurance.

Under the new law, states are compelled to expand Medicaid. Equally troublesome is the congressional mandate on the states to establish federally supervised health insurance exchanges within their borders where government-sponsored plans and co-ops will compete against private insurance.

Under Section 1311(b)(1), “Each state shall, not later than January 1, 2014, establish an American Health Benefit Exchange.” [Emphasis added.] The exchange is either to be a governmental agency or a nonprofit entity. Under Section 1321(c), if a state does not establish such an exchange, the Secretary of Health and Human Services will establish and operate an exchange within the state. In the “state-based” exchanges, of course, only federally approved heath plans would be allowed to compete.

The states, in other words, would be vehicles of federal health policy. This is underscored by the highly prescriptive requirements imposed on the states, governing everything from the simple presentation of health plan information down to the formatting of state Web sites. The statute authorizes over a dozen regulatory interventions by the Secretary of HHS and other federal officials.

At the very least, this is a profoundly undesirable alteration in the relationship between the federal government and the officers and citizens of the states—precisely the concentration of power that the Founders feared—and it is also constitutionally suspect. It is one thing to require state officials to obey federal law; it is quite another to compel them to administer it and force their citizens to bear the expense of that administration. Our constitutional tradition limits federal power and does not sanction national intrusion into citizens’ personal, private, or domestic relations. As Madison affirmed, law in these areas of domestic life is properly within the jurisdiction of the states; this latest act of Congress is a bold challenge to that jurisdiction.

State Legislators as Tribunes of the People

The states have emerged as the institutional centers of resistance to the new health law. Twenty-one states have filed suit against the individual mandate to purchase health insurance on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional burden on their citizens. Even legal specialists who have expressed sympathy for the objectives of the new law fully acknowledge the broader issues at stake in this national debate. According to Jonathan Turley:

Though the federal government has the clear advantage in such litigation, these challenges should not be dismissed as baseless political maneuvering. There is a legitimate concern for many that this mandate constitutes the greatest (and perhaps the most lethal) challenge to states’ rights in U.S. history. With this legislation, Congress has effectively defined an uninsured 18-year-old man in Richmond as an interstate problem like a polluting factory. It is an assertion of federal power that is inherently at odds with the original vision of the Framers. If a citizen who fails to get health insurance is an interstate problem, it is difficult to see the limiting principle as Congress seeks to impose other requirements on citizens.

Likewise, 13 states have filed suits against the Medicaid mandate. While these legal challenges work their way through the judicial process, state governors and legislators, allied with their aggrieved citizens, can and should pursue a broader political strategy to repeal, resist, or roll back this unjustified expansion of federal power. Because of the potential damage to the states from these costly federal mandates and regulations, the national health law should emerge as an issue in state politics.

State legislators can serve as the true tribunes of the people. They can help to redefine and frame the terms of the national debate. Thus far, legislators in 38 states have already introduced Freedom of Choice in Health Care Acts based on model legislation proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the leading national association of conservative state legislators. The proposals would generally allow persons to pay directly for medical services if they wished to do so and block the imposition of penalties on those who did not enroll in a particular health plan. Such measures obviously invite a constitutional challenge.

Playing Offense

Under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, the powers not granted to the national government are reserved to the states and to the people. There is a large role that states can play in making health care policy, especially over the next four years. Furthermore, inaction by the states is an invitation to the federal government to take over their legitimate power when there is a popular demand for action.

State legislators can and should move ahead with their own agenda for health reform, not just play a waiting game until 2014, listening for Washington to tell them what to do and how to do it. State legislators should seize every inch of territory in the health policy debate within the law, such as health insurance market reform, and challenge every transgression of their legitimate authority if and when federal officials violate it.

State legislators should also hold their own public hearings on the impact of the federal law on their citizens, employers, employees, insurers and medical professionals, and state agencies. U.S. senators who voted to impose costly mandates on their states should be invited to state legislative hearings to give an account of their actions and explain why they believe that such mandates advance the true interests of the states they represent.

Likewise, state legislators should invite federal officials to appear and explain how they intend to implement mandates and make them justify their proposed rules in broad daylight. State legislators, in cooperation with colleagues in sister states, should make it clear that dumping hundreds of pages of complex federal rules into the Federal Register for public notice and comment is no longer sufficient.

Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist No. 28, anticipated such cooperation among the states in resisting unjust federal power:

Projects of usurpation cannot be masked under pretences so likely to escape the penetration of select bodies of men, as of the people at large. The legislatures will have better means of information; they can discover the danger at a distance; and possessing all the organs of civil power, and the confidence of the people, they can at once adopt a regular plan of opposition, in which they can combine all the resources of the community. They can readily communicate with each other in different states; and unite their common forces, for the protection of their common liberty.

The Rebirth of Liberty

The enactment of the massive Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was a direct repudiation of the popular will and, equally, a bold challenge to the continued viability of the federal political order. There are no guarantees of victory either, in Congress or in the courts, but the United States is still a federal republic, not a unitary state or a mass democracy.

It is crucial that state officials make a compelling argument against the concentration of power on the basis of first principles: It is an argument that can succeed. Anticipating a political establishment insulated from popular will and feeling on vital national issues, the Founders also provided the people of the states with a final remedy for ills besetting the federal republic: constitutional amendment.

Given the rapid and continuing growth of the already enormous health care sector of the economy, as well as the gravity of the threat to liberty in such a vital area of personal life, state legislatures, in league with sympathetic members of Congress, should consider crafting a constitutional amendment to guarantee the personal liberty of every citizen in the area of health care.

Given the trajectory of federal policy, state officials should take the leadership role in the next phase of the national health care debate, reclaim their rightful authority, and change the facts on the ground for Congress and the White House.


Dr. Moffit is Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy Innovation at The Heritage Foundation. This article is adapted from his Heritage Foundation paper “Revitalizing Federalism: The High Road Back to Health Care Independence,” published June 30, 2010.

Make States Compete by Reviving Fiscal Federalism

by Veronique de Rugy and Stefanie Haeffele-Balch

IN MAY 2009, THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT forced South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford to take his state’s share of federal stimulus funds and spend the money on new programs rather than on paying down debt. Many free market advocates claimed this move threatened fiscal federalism. But the truth is that fiscal federalism has been eroded for decades by the growth of the federal government and its ever-increasing number of grants and subsidies to state governments.

What Is Fiscal Federalism?

Fiscal federalism is the idea that, acting under some federal constraints, states should set their own economic policies rather than follow directives from the central government. A limit on federal power, fiscal federalism theoretically produces one main benefit to individuals: It increases competition between states. If states differentiate themselves on the bases of taxes, spending, and regulation, Americans have more freedom to decide the rules under which they live. If citizens are dissatisfied with the state in which they reside, they can register their discontent by voting with their feet and moving to another jurisdiction. This competition for residents helps keep lawmakers in check, giving them an incentive to keep taxes, regulations, and other intrusions modest.

Also, by nature, the policy needs and priorities in the state of Alaska are different than those in the state of Florida. Fiscal federalism involves decentralization of decision making, which allows sovereign states to cater to their constituencies’ preferences and provide policies that fit their states rather than impose a one-size-fits-all product.

The Erosion of Fiscal Federalism

The precondition for fiscal federalism to work is that taxpayers get a different tax treatment or burden depending on where they live. However, for decades, the federal government has taken over many state functions, essentially eroding federalism by making state policy more homogeneous. This process happened mainly through the federal distribution of grants to state and local governments, also called grants-in-aid. The figure above shows federal grant spending in constant (2000) dollars from 1960 to 2013. Total grant outlays increased from $285.9 billion in fiscal year 2000 to $363.3 billion in fiscal year 2010—a 27.1 percent increase. Grants also account for a bigger share of federal spending: 18 percent in 2009, compared to 7.6 percent in 1960. The data show the federal government taking over more and more state activities, such as education.

fed_grants-to-states_f2010

The same pattern in the takeover of state functions by the federal government is evident when you look at the total number of federal grant programs. In 1980, according to calculations by Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute, there were 434 federal grant programs for state and local governments. In 2006, there were 814.

federal_aid_programs_f2010

Edwards notes that the support for grants and for centralization of government power in Washington come from policymakers who favor funding government through the heavily graduated federal income tax system rather than through the more proportional state tax system. Hence, as federal grant programs continue to grow, so does federal taxation.

Federal taxation has grown so much that differences in state tax rates contribute only marginally to a taxpayer’s total tax burden. Sixty percent of all government revenues in 2008 came from the federal income tax, making it the dominant tax burden in Americans’ lives. By contrast, in 1930, the federal income tax provided only 30 percent of all government revenues.

tax_and_revenue_shares_f2010

All other things being equal, it remains less costly to live or run a business in a low-taxrate state than in a high-tax-rate one. However, when the federal government imposes an ever-increasing percentage of each taxpayer’s total tax burden, differences in state taxes become less important. If your main tax burden is going to be the same wherever you live, why bother moving to another state, especially if you get to deduct your state taxes from your federal ones? Being able to deduct state taxes from the federal burden obviates any differences between the states.

Federal grants for state and local functions further obviate differences between the states. Such grants come with strings attached, strings that further weaken states’ independence. In order to retrieve some of the money that their residents have paid in federal taxes, states must compete with each other to get money from the federal government instead of more directly competing with each other to gain residents.

This lack of meaningful interstate competition has a negative effect on taxpayers. As programs become more centralized, state authorities must increasingly comply with procedures and regulations set forth by Washington. These homogeneous procedures and regulations often ignore the needs of local taxpayers. In effect, the states and the federal government act as a tax cartel, charging higher taxes for lower quality services that do not address the unique needs of communities.

Policy Implications

In theory, fiscal federalism is a great tool that holds state and local governments accountable for their policy actions. In practice, it hardly exists. The increasing scope of federal programs and grants has largely eroded its impact on policy decisions by state and local government to the point that tax considerations become almost irrelevant in people’s decisions about where to live.

We should mourn the death of fiscal federalism. The fear of losing taxpayers to another jurisdiction gives policymakers an incentive to keep taxes, regulations, and other intrusions modest; but homogenized, top-down policy diminishes the incentives for states to compete for residents. Instead of competing for residents, states compete for federal funding and privileges. It’s a system that rewards the best lobbyists while wasting taxpayers’ money.

In order to bring fiscal federalism back to life, the government’s power to tax and to spend needs to be decentralized radically. The Reagan administration’s policy of “new federalism” attempted to sort out the mess of federal grants by redefining federal and state priorities so that each level of government should have full responsibility for financing its own programs. For example, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 eliminated 59 grant programs and consolidated 80 narrowly focused grants into nine block grants, reducing their regulatory burden. Unfortunately, this progress was subsequently reversed.

Today, lawmakers need to revive federalism by transferring many programs back to the states. States are, after all, in a better position than the federal government to determine their needs when it comes to roads or schools.

A first step would be to dramatically cut federal aid to the state governments. Eventually, the federal government would have to abolish the national income tax and cease giving grants to state and local governments. Only such circumstances would expel the authority of the federal government from state and local functions and force state lawmakers to cater to their constituents for fear of losing them to competing states.


Dr. de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Ms. Haeffele-Balch is a graduate student in economics at George Mason University as well as a graduate student fellow in the Government Accountability Project and the Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center. This article is adapted from their paper, “The Death of Fiscal Federalism,” published by the Mercatus Center, May 2010.

The New Watchdogs: Franklin Center Builds Nationwide Network of Investigative Reporters

by Robert B. Bluey

JIM SCARANTINO WAS BROWSING the government’s economic stimulus Web site last year when he did a double take. As the editor of New Mexico Watchdog, Scarantino was keeping tabs on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s impact on his state.

Recovery.gov, the government’s official source for data on jobs created or saved, reported $8.96 million was spent in New Mexico’s 35th District. There was just one problem. New Mexico has only three congressional representatives.

“When I saw the page listing the top five congressional districts, I knew I had a story. We only have three,” Scarantino explained. “It was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was such a ludicrous error. It’s the kind of thing investigative reporters love to get a hold of because it makes fools out of arrogant, pretentious government bureaucrats.”

Scarantino broke the story and immediately notified a network of reporters from across the country working for similar Watchdog outlets. They, too, found erroneous entries on the government’s Web site. Phantom congressional districts became a national story, even catching the attention of Stephen Colbert on his faux news show on Comedy Central.

Scarantino’s scoop is exactly the type of reporting the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity was hoping would make headlines when it set out in 2008 to train scores of investigative journalists in nearly all 50 states. Watchdog news outlets began to sprout as traditional media shed jobs, particularly costly investigative positions.

Today the Franklin Center has expanded its outlook to state capitol bureaus, another casualty for budget-cutting media companies. From 2003 to 2009, statehouse reporters declined from 524 positions to 355—a 30 percent drop. In smaller states, that might leave just one reporter covering the state capitol.

While traditional media outlets are downsizing, the Franklin Center is stepping in to fill the void. Franklin-networked reporters are now in over 40 states, breaking stories about government corruption, political kickbacks, and other unethical schemes.

“State by state and at the national level, these reporters are having an impact on the daily debate,” said Jason Stverak, Franklin’s president. “We needed investigative reporters 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and we’ll need them into the future. There needs to be an aggressive watchdog on government.”

Stverak has a background in political organizing as the former executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party. Those skills have helped Franklin grow quickly and provide its partners with support, training, and legal advice, enabling their reporters to spend time in the field producing news content.

Many have found a home at free-market think tanks across the country. Scarantino, for instance, works for the Rio Grande Foundation in New Mexico. Another reporter, Kathy Hoekstra, is based at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan.

Hoekstra, who previously held a television news job, said her role at Mackinac is a natural extension of the think tank’s underlying mission.

“It adds another dimension to the work the Mackinac Center is already doing to broaden the debate through its objective analysis of Michigan issues,” Hoekstra said. “By reporting on stories that expose government waste, fraud, and abuse, the Mackinac Center shines an even greater light on government operations and enables residents to hold their elected officials and government bureaucrats accountable for their use of taxpayer money.”

Hoekstra made waves with an exposé on liberal filmmaker Michael Moore last year. Cleverly called “Michael and Me”—a title inspired by one of Moore’s films—Hoekstra used her broadcast talents to reveal that Moore got taxpayer funding for a movie he was filming in Michigan. Given the state’s dire economy, it sparked outrage. The celebrity-focused Perez Hilton blog linked to her report, exposing the Mackinac Center to an unlikely audience.

Stverak takes great pride in stories like Scarantino’s and Hoekstra’s because they broke through the saturated news environment.

“There is more and more of a vacuum of real information about what is going on in government and in communities,” he said.

That is why Franklin is expanding to state capitol bureaus. Stverak wants to fill the empty chairs with reporters who can keep a watchful eye on state governments. Today the organization has about 34 reporters in capitol bureaus in more than 20 states, with more on the horizon.

“We work with reporters who are former scientists, attorneys, forensic accountants,” Stverak said. “They’re not trained journalists, but they’re practicing journalistic endeavors with the highest level of integrity and standards.”

They cover a variety of topics, but spending is a regular focus. StateHouseNewsOnline.com serves as an aggregator, featuring the work of independent journalists covering state-specific and local government activity. Despite its growing success, not everyone is a fan of the Franklin Center’s work. Politicians and government bureaucrats who prefer secrecy don’t care to have reporters looking over their shoulder.

Then there is the backlash from traditional media outlets that face competition from aggressive reporters hungry for scoops. When journalists aren’t griping about these upstart outlets behind the scenes, they’re getting their allies to do it for them.

This fall, the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University attacked the Franklin Center for accepting tax-deductible donations as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Franklin accepts no government funding for its work, but Nieman’s Jim Barnett argued that tax-deductible donations were tantamount to federal aid. The piece read like a typical liberal rant with the sole purpose of questioning Franklin’s credibility.

Stverak and his colleagues at Franklin recognize the threat they pose to traditional media outlets that want to maintain their monopoly on the news.

“Obviously, there is skepticism coming from some in the traditional legacy media, but that’s not who we work and write for,” Stverak said. “We write for the people, and the content that we produce is at such a high-quality level that it is continually being embraced by the consumers in each community.”

As he recounted the story on phantom congressional districts, Scarantino heaped praise on the Franklin Center for the opportunity to serve as his own assignment editor. That allowed him to pursue the best story rather than follow the pack. Because of the 24/7 news cycle, some reporters don’t have that freedom.

“I couldn’t have done this without the Franklin Center,” Scarantino said. “They gave me the luxury of time to actually read and investigate, throw my net wide and run wherever my interests and suspicions led.”

With that approach, Franklin is devoted to expanding the number of investigative reporters. Stverak said he believes we’re in an era when investigative reporting can flourish.

“It goes back to the phantom congressional districts story,” he explained. “You had the government’s own transparency Web site that couldn’t even get the correct number of congressional districts. It’s up to these reporters to ensure the dollars being spent on our behalf as citizens are being spent in the correct way.”

Someone has to do it. And given its early success, the Franklin Center appears up to the task.


Mr. Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism operation at The Heritage Foundation.

Teaching Young Conservatives: 4 Elements of a Great Intern Program

by Heather Sexton

EVERY YEAR, 150 OR MORE young minds come to The Heritage Foundation to learn first-hand the kind of work that a conservative think tank does. We like the New York Times description of our interns as “young and bright and ardently right.” Past Heritage interns have gone on to write for National Review, work for the White House, and get elected to state legislatures. We never know what the future holds for our interns, but we always aim to equip them with the intellectual tools and the job skills they’ll need to make a difference in the conservative movement and the fight for freedom.

A number of factors help make Heritage’s Young Leaders Program a success. Here are four elements you should focus on to make your intern program a success too:

1. Get the Details Down

Whether you’re hosting intern number one or number one thousand, make a decision every year about:

  • how many interns you want to hire;
  • how much (if anything) you are going to pay them;
  • what dates or semesters you want interns;
  • what the eligibility requirements will be (e.g. education, age);
  • what materials the applicants should send you and when they should send them (e.g., resume, recommendation letters, transcript);
  • what type of work the interns will do; and
  • to whom the interns will report.

In order to run a top-notch intern program, there are countless details to have in order for each intern group. Put together a guide on how to run the program. This guide should include best practices, a timeline of key dates, and information about specific components of the program. With so many moving parts, being organized ensures nothing drops through the cracks. Keeping track of what works and doesn’t helps you become more efficient and eliminates repetition.

For example, you don’t want to forget to send a rejection letter or notice to someone who’s applied for your program. Frequently, donors or other individuals you work with will recommend students to the program. And you want to demonstrate you are running an efficient program that treats intern applicants in a businesslike manner.

2. Teach from the Start

Since many students are new to nonprofits and the policy scene, it is important to give them the necessary grounding from the start. Make sure they understand, for example, that “501(c)3” and “501(c)4” nonprofits face different rules on political activity. Give examples. You can tell your interns not to have any “direct or indirect participation in a campaign,” but most situations are not that cut and dry. Point out, for instance, that copying campaign information or forwarding candidate e-mails to friends is not permitted on work computers. Make sure they understand what activities can be done only on their personal time and the restrictions they must follow when at work.

Interacting with the media—especially social media—should be another teaching focus. Young people these days are constantly Facebooking, Tweeting, and blogging. Once they start interning, they are excited to talk about what they are doing or to argue for a policy position. Each organization has its own rules on the individual use of social media. Make sure your interns learn the rules. And if your interns are going to Tweet or blog about a policy issue, you need to impress upon them the importance of exercising due diligence in getting the details of your organization’s position correct. A related area of concern is attendance at conferences that are heavily attended by the media. Make sure your interns know what they can and can’t do in terms of representing your organization at such forums.

Always cover more rather than less. Take the time to teach the rules throughout the internship to reduce the possibility of an embarrassing misstep.

3. Provide a Well-Rounded Experience

You should provide your interns with both a work experience and an educational experience. Equip, train, educate, and develop each of your interns. Most staff members are not only willing but also enthusiastic to give a talk to interns. Set up briefings with a variety of experts to focus on different policy areas. That way interns get to learn more in-depth information about issues and interact with different staff. You should regard your internship program as an opportunity to fill any deficits in the education your interns may have received in college. The basics of economics, the rule of law, and the American Founding are neglected at many American universities.

Your non-policy staff can contribute as well. For example, a member of your communications team can teach a workshop on how to write a great op-ed. Someone from personnel can talk about what a great resume looks like and how to look for a job in the conservative movement. While not every intern will write an op-ed or start a blog, these workshops can hone their skills and get them thinking about where they would like to work in the movement.

Depending on your location, your program can include a trip to either the U.S. Capitol or your state capitol. And if your organization hosts public events, make sure your interns know about those opportunities as well. By balancing the work and educational opportunities, the interns will have a well-rounded experience. The more you take the time to invest in them, the more they will be able to contribute to your organization and the conservative movement.

4. Stay in Touch

Frequently, your intern alumni will turn out to be the best advocates for your organization. You’ll want them to promote the intern program to fellow students and to talk up the organization generally, so make sure you don’t lose touch with them. Set up a system for capturing each intern’s permanent contact information. Many interns provide their school e-mail addresses (which expire) or their campus addresses, but those addresses are not helpful after they graduate.

If you can afford it, host an annual alumni event. This event can be for both staff and interns. Also, send out a quarterly e-mail, updating them on what’s happening at your organization. This practice keeps them connected and up-to-date on new initiatives your organization has launched.


Ms. Sexton is Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.

 
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