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Romney Hits Gingrich on Child Labor Law Stance

By Alyson Klein — December 12, 2011 1 min read

Newt Gingrich’s comment that the feds should revamp child labor laws to give students a chance to work in their school buildings was an early flashpoint in Saturday night’s GOP presidential debate.

Gingrich’s chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination—former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—singled out Gingich’s comments on child labor as one area where he disagrees with the former House Speaker, during a Dec. 12 debate at Drake University, in Iowa.

Some background: Gingrich told a forum at Harvard University that he thinks that kids, particularly disadvantaged kids in underperforming schools, should be given a chance to make some cash by helping to clean up their schools (instead of “unionized janitors”), working in the library or front office. He billed this as one way to help combat poverty and improve education, and said there will need to be changes to child labor laws to make it happen.

Gingrich continued to defend that position during the debate, saying:

Kids ought to be allowed to work part-time, in school, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods. ... You could give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office, in a lot of different things. I'll stand by the idea young people ought be able to work. Middle class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness.

Romney agreed that it would good for young people to get more involved in helping out around their schools. But he doesn’t think child labor laws need to change in order for that to happen.

Politics K-12 fact-check: Students can start earning money as early as age 14, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. So what Romney is saying seems to be true for most high school kids, at least as far as federal law goes. (Union contracts and state laws may be another story.) And some districts have considered school work itself a “job” and offered kids financial rewards for making progress. The Department of Labor has also supported students in the Cristo-Rey program, a network of Roman Catholic schools that requires students to work during the school day.

Plus, lots of schools try to expose students to the workforce without necessarily asking them to take over for the janitor. Schools offer credit or other rewards to kids who take on job-like responsibilities, such as working as a teachers’ aides, or helping out in the school store.

Politics K-12 fact-check 2: Meanwhile, Gingrich also said that an entry janitor in New York City schools get pays twice as much as an entry level teacher. He may have gotten that fact from this story, which shows that the figure is true at least one high school in the Bronx.

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