School Choice & Charters

Child-Labor Proposal Eyes Private Model

By Scott J. Cech — June 01, 2007 5 min read

Proposed child-labor-rule changes —the most ambitious in 30 years—would carve out a permanent exemption to U.S. Department of Labor regulations for the work-study program run by a national network of Roman Catholic high schools .

The program is a requirement of the Chicago-based Cristo Rey Network, which now has 12 high schools around the country targeting low-income, mostly minority students in grades 9-12 with their sights set on college.

Under the Cristo Rey-style model that the department has proposed, students in any qualifying public or private school could work up to eight hours a day during some school days—more than double the time now permitted for 14- and 15-year-olds.

As the proposal is now worded, “academically oriented” 14- and 15-year-olds could work for up to 18 hours in some weeks. Students in department-approved programs would still have to attend classes for at least the minimum number of hours required by their states.

“It does not jeopardize their health or education,” said Arthur M. Kerschner Jr., the department’s child-labor and special-employment team leader, referring to the plan. “In fact, we think it helps their education.”

Cristo Rey students pay some of their tuition—$2,414 per year, on average—by working up to eight hours a day on some school days at one of the network-screened banks or law firms that contract with the schools. The teenagers rotate in teams of four to collectively fill one 40-hour-per-week job slot, and the network’s school calendar stretches over 10 months to accommodate all the hours.

As the Labor Department’s proposed rule changes note, the 2,800-student Cristo Rey Network has an impressive track record. According to the network, 92 percent of the class of 2006 graduated, and 99 percent of graduates were accepted at a college.

“We have found [the work-study program] motivates young people to go on to college,” said Jeff Thielman, Cristo Rey’s vice president for development and new initiatives. “They go to work and see lawyers and other professional people and they say, ‘That could be me if I play my cards right.’ ”

But not everyone thinks it’s a fair deal. “Even if 100 percent graduate, it wouldn’t ameliorate my concerns,” said Jeffrey F. Newman, the president and executive director of the National Child Labor Committee, a New York City-based nonprofit organization chartered by Congress in 1907 to protect children’s education and safety.

Mr. Newman wants to avoid any return to the kind of large-scale employment of poor children prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“It is of considerable concern to me as a child-labor-exploitation expert that certain groups would be separated out from other groups because of their academic rigor, even as we recognize the need for financial help as college costs balloon,” Mr. Newman added. “That’s a very dangerous precedent to set.”

Under the Radar

Existing federal regulations allow young teenagers to get a school-supervised taste of the working world through a long-standing program that offers states waivers of regular child-labor rules.

But the Work Experience and Career Exploration Program, which has been in place since 1969, is aimed at students with blue-collar goals who are at risk of dropping out, according to Mr. Kerschner. And even under its allowances, 14- and 15-year-olds can work only three hours per day on school days.

The National School Boards Association hasn’t taken a position on the proposed rule changes, but Lisa E. Soronen, a senior staff attorney for the Alexandria, Va.-based group, sees some promise in the idea. “If you want to save for college,” she said, “you can’t get there doing that three hours a day.”

Ironically, and apparently inadvertently, Cristo Rey operated its work-study program in violation of those Labor Department limits for about a decade. According to school and government officials, the fast-growing nonprofit network came to the department’s attention in 2003, when someone pointed out that one of its schools was sending its students to work for whole school days.

Around the same time, Cristo Rey officials came to the department, asking what they could do to comply with the law.

Rather than have the Labor Department’s enforcement branch crack down on a work-study program that seemed to be helping students, Mr. Kerschner recalled, “we said, ‘Let’s put [the program] in the regs so other schools can take advantage of it.’ ”

Pilot Agreement

The Cristo Rey Network last year signed an unusual pilot agreement with the department that allows its work-study program to operate outside of the usual rules until next year. That’s when the rule changes, if approved by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao and the White House Office of Management and Budget, would take effect. The proposal’s 90-day public-comment period ends July 16.

The network, which started with one school in Chicago in 1996 and incorporated as a nonprofit network in 2003, has expanded rapidly with significant help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. To date, the Seattle-based philanthropy has awarded the network nearly $16 million—most of it specifically for increasing the number of Cristo Rey schools. (Gates also helps fund an annual Education Week report on issues related to high school graduation and college and workforce readiness.)

The Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, a Newton, Mass.-based philanthropy with a history of grants to Catholic schools, has also been a major funder, awarding Cristo Rey schools $12 million since 2000.

The network now operates schools in Cambridge, Mass.; Chicago; Cleveland; Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; Lawrence, Mass.; Los Angeles; New York City; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Waukegan, Ill.

It plans to open seven more schools this August, and hopes three more will be ready by 2008.

It’s unclear how many other schools might take advantage of a Cristo Rey-style work-study program. The Labor Department proposal doesn’t spell out what would qualify students as “academically oriented,” except requiring that they be “enrolled in a college-preparatory program.” Schools would have to get their programs approved by eligible students’ parents, their school, and the department under the new rules, however, and assign a teacher-coordinator to supervise the students.

“I don’t see that there’s going to be a big demand for this,” Mr. Kerschner said.

Mr. Thielman, the Cristo Rey official, doubts that the work-study model could be completely replicated in public schools, where students aren’t under pressure to make school tuition payments.

“Their ability to go to school does not depend on how they do their job,” he said. “It would be trickier in the public sector. Not impossible, but trickier.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Child-Labor Proposal Eyes Private Model


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela
Teaching Live Online Discussion How to Develop Powerful Project-Based Learning
How do you prepare students to be engaged, active, and empowered young adults? Creating a classroom atmosphere that encourages students to pursue critical inquiry and the many skills it requires demands artful planning on the

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Opinion Taking Stock After 30 Years of Charter Schools
Rick Hess speaks with Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, on charter schools turning 30.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters In Fight Over Millions of Dollars for Charter Schools, a Marijuana Tax May Bring Peace
The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted unanimously to rescind a polarizing lawsuit settlement, pending certain stipulations.
Nuria Martinez-Keel, The Oklahoman
3 min read
Money bills cash funds close up Getty
School Choice & Charters Full-Time Virtual Schools: Still Growing, Still Struggling, Still Resisting Oversight
Nearly 500,000 students now attend full-time online and blended schools, says a new report from the National Education Policy Center.
6 min read
Student attending class from a remote location.
School Choice & Charters Opinion Is Hybrid Home Schooling the Future of Education?
Rick Hess speaks with Mike McShane about hybrid home schooling, which combines the best of home schooling and traditional schooling.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty