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.’ ”
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