Was Gingrich Right About Putting Kids to Work?

The presidential candidate's suggestion to put school children to work was faulty in specifics but sound in general

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Newt Gingrich has a penchant for saying provocative and often downright crazy things. When the former House Speaker gave a lecture at Harvard last month, calling child labor laws “truly stupid” and suggesting that low-income kids should be required to do some manual labor in their schools, it was a classic Gingrich proposal: over-the-top, totally tone-deaf, and way too broad in scope. But it also was not entirely wrong. Although his specifics are often bewildering, it’s hard to deny that Gingrich has a knack for spotting trends in education.

(MORE: Adam Cohen: The Creeping Rollback of Child-Labor Laws)

In 1994, when Gingrich was the leader of House Republicans, he suggested a radical welfare reform: to break the cycle of poverty, take poor kids away from their unwed teen mothers and put them in state-run facilities. His orphanage idea was designed to free up single parents for job training while simultaneously instilling better work habits in their children. Not surprisingly, the proposal quickly died on Capitol Hill. But in the 17 years since then, hundreds of schools have sprung up across the country that are designed to get students to spend more time on school-related activities and less time exposed to adverse influences in their neighborhoods and, yes, sometimes in their homes. These schools also have clear nonacademic curricula that focus on behavior, self-management and life skills. The goal, as described by journalist David Whitman, the current speechwriter for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, is to use school as an anti-poverty tool by deliberately fostering a strong work ethic in students.

The trend runs from micro (from kids keeping shirts tucked in to properly introducing themselves to adults) to macro: at the Washington-based SEED schools, students live at these public boarding schools five days a week. SEED is pretty extreme, but most of the new-paternalism schools have a school day that is extended beyond what’s typical now. And the most successful ones also promote intense teacher-student relationships and put a lot of thought and effort into creating a college-going culture even even the youngest students.

That’s why Gingrich’s latest idea — making disadvantaged students do janitorial work — is faulty in its specifics but not crazy in general. Of course, we’re unlikely to see students displace many school workers and not just because in education, when there’s a conflict between what’s good for the kids and what’s good for the adults, the adults always win. (Teachers’ union leaders immediately cast Gingrich’s proposal as a threat to public-sector jobs, a response as tone-deaf as Newt’s initial comments.) The fact is that much of the maintenance and support work at schools simply isn’t appropriate for students. For starters, large commercial kitchens are dangerous places because of the machinery used there, and janitors deal with chemicals that children shouldn’t handle. Besides, when you look at successful schools that have an extended school day or week, that extra time is devoted to helping students catch up academically; there is not a lot left over for things like maintaining school buildings.

(MORE: Rotherham: Forget Wall Street. Go Occupy Your Local School District)

Still, in the education reform community, Gingrich’s latest salvo was greeted with a shrug. Sure, his blanket indictment of the work habits of poor kids was obnoxiously broad, but the idea that schools should systematically teach life skills is considered a no-brainer. Many schools already do a little of this through service projects and activities. On-site gardens are also becoming an increasingly popular strategy to teach students good dietary habits as well as values like responsibility and caring. Other schools give students work experiences during the summer, and some assign tasks to students such as giving tours to prospective parents or — nod to Newt — cleaning up a little.

It’s true that Gingrich’s intellectual faddishness and machine-gun style of discourse generally produce more bad proposals than good ones. But, at least in education, he’s once again getting the kernel of an emerging concept right, if not the specifics of it. That’s no small thing in a presidential contest that so far has been light on big ideas.

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