“It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid,” opined Newt Gingrich last week in a speech at the Harvard Business School. “Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor, and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”
Well, most bloggers and columnists made scorched toast of Mr. Gingrich for those comments, and the Huffington Post even ran a series of photos of kids doing other union jobs (pilot, teacher, construction worker) that would save money and engage them in the “process of rising.” Gingrich eventually backtracked, saying he really didn’t want to revamp child labor laws, but that kids could easily work 20 hours a week while going to school, ignoring studies that show that the more students work, the lower their grades and the more likely they are to drop out of school. I can validate that point from my own experience of 25 years working in secondary schools.
I once worked in a private school that required scholarship students not to do janitorial work, but to work in the cafeteria cleaning up and serving lunch to everyone else. The headmaster’s original idea was that all students would serve a brief time working in the cafeteria, but the pushback from parents who were paying full tuition was too strong. As one parent succinctly put it, “I’m not paying thousands of dollars a year for my kid to be a waiter.” So only our scholarship students had the opportunity to begin the “process of rising.” The other students had ostensibly already risen.
Before scholarship kids were singled out as workers serving their peers, nobody knew who paid what. Afterwards, it was very clear. The whole idea resulted in scholarship kids feeling embarrassed and resentful and contributed to the sense of class distinction in the school. It’s not a stretch to suggest that this outcome could exacerbate a national class distinction already felt.
Schools in which students should work as janitorial help, according to the candidate, would be “failing schools,” which, of course, turn out to be predominantly poor with a minority population. Take a 6.5 school day and tack on four additional hours for janitorial work and you have a 52.5 hour week at school, not counting dinner hour. And something else you can’t count is participation in sports or other extracurricular activities.
We hear a lot of candidates say a lot of silly things during campaigns. This bit of nonsense, however, is simply repugnant, suggesting that instead of fixing failing schools, we should put kids to work cleaning them. Let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Their best hope isn’t education, but manual labor.
And by the way, kids would be cleaners, not janitors or the more appropriate title, "custodians." if Gingrich thinks custodial work can be done by children, he doesn’t know much about how schools work. But I already said that.