What’s Not to Like About Newt’s Education Proposal?

It was a bit odd to see Charles Blow (of the New York Times) take out after Newt Gingrich for saying that “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.” I had just returned from an inner city school where teachers and administrators and parents were saying the same things as Gingrich.  In fact, I’ve been hearing these complaints from teachers – and business leaders – for years.  Teaching children the “habits of working” is a growing part of the school reform movement.

For the last couple of weeks Gingrich has been tossing read meat to the liberal wolves in ways that only the Grinch who stole Christmas can.  He has also suggested that poor kids do janitorial work in school – and earn money doing it.  According to politico.com, the former West Georgia State College history professor told a Kennedy School of Government audience that. It’s worth an extended quote, because Gingrich needs context to make up for the  lightning-bolt phrases he drops in throughout:

This is something that no liberal wants to deal with… Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest neighborhoods, crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality in the United States than any other single policy. It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid. You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model…. 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 the schools, they’d begin the process of rising….  You go out and talk to people, as I do, you go out and talk to people who are really successful in one generation. They all started their first job between nine and 14 years of age. They all were either selling newspapers, going door to door, they were doing something, they were washing cars….  They all learned how to make money at a very early age… What do we say to poor kids in poor neighborhoods? Don’t do it. Remember all that stuff about don’t get a hamburger flipping job? The worst possible advice you could give to poor children. Get any job that teaches you to show up on Monday. Get any job that teaches you to stay all day even if you are in a fight with your girlfriend. The whole process of making work worthwhile is central.

Not surprisingly, Gingrich’s ideas were attacked as Dickensian. Blow called them “cruel.” Randi Weingarten called them “absurd.”

“Who in their right mind would lay off janitors and replace them with disadvantaged children — who should be in school, and not cleaning schools,” Ms. Weingarten said. “And who would start backtracking on laws designed to halt the exploitation of children?”

Newt’s never been known for soft-and-cuddly and he does make an easy target for bleeding heart liberals – a term that Gingrich’s new front-runner status may bring back to life – as he joins his Darwinian socio-economic observations with a delivery crisp enough to shatter good china.  The problem is, though, that he’s mostly right.

His “21st Century Learning System” is worth considering. A sampling, from Newt.org:

  • Empower parents to pick the right school for their child.  Parents had the right to choose the school that is best for their child, and should never be trapped in a failing school against their will.
  • Institute a Pell Grant-style system for Kindergarten through 12th Grade. Per-pupil school district funding should go into each child’s backpack, and follow them to the school their parents wish to attend. Parents who home school their children should receive a tax credit or be allowed to keep the Pell Grant.
  • Require transparency and accountability about achievement. Each state must set a rigorous standard that allows every student everywhere to master the skills they will need to be competitive, and develop a process for grading the effectiveness of every school.
  • Implement a “no limits” charter system.
  • All of the money allocated for student education goes directly to the school.
  • The school manages its own staff, whereby it is exempt from laws regarding tenure, and need not unionize.
  • The school defines its own curriculum, in line with the state standards and assessments.  Students in charters are not exempt from state assessments.  The schools are not exempt from reporting requirements, nor should they be.
  • State law allows the school to “franchise” its model without limitation.  That means they need not apply for a new school every time they can build a new one.  If they have the demand, they must be able to serve it.
  • The state has NO CAPS on the number of charter schools that can be approved, and the process for approving charter schools is smooth and efficient.

Oh, yes, he doesn’t suggest killing the federal Department of Education – just “shrink” it and “return power to states and communities. The Department’s only role will be to collect research and data, and help find new and innovative approaches to then be adopted voluntarily at the local level.”

Is it time for education reformers to pay Gingrich some more attention?

–Peter Meyer

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