Gingrich's Plan to Turn Students Into City School Cleaners? Only in the Movies

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During Monday night's Republican presidential primary debate in South Carolina, the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, singled out the salaries of cleaners and custodial engineers in New York City when he defended his call for paying poor students to work in schools.

One of the debate moderators, Juan Williams of the Fox News Channel, asked him about his proposal, and whether it was insulting. Mr. Gingrich responded:

“New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They'd learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They'd be getting money, which is a good thing if you're poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”

For the record, we asked the New York City Department of Education what janitors make. A department spokesman said there is no such title as "janitor." But the people Mr. Gingrich appears to be talking about actually have the title of "cleaners," and they make less than teachers, contrary to what Mr. Gingrich said a few weeks ago.

Cleaners are paid $37,710 annually after two years on the job. They belong to the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, and here is a link to their contract.

The union was more than eager to weigh-in.

“Contrary to what former Speaker Newt Gingrich says, the 5,000 men and women who keep New York City public schools clean are paid no more than $37,000 a year in the most expensive city in the country,” said Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of 32BJ. “To say these jobs pay too much, or should be given to kids, is not just a slap in the face of hardworking Americans struggling to make ends meet on poverty-like wages, but an affront to any fair minded person concerned about our schools, kids and the plight of millions of working families across our country.”

If Mr. Gingrich was talking about the more well-paid custodial engineers, the Education Department said they can make up to three times more than cleaners, depending on the size of their schools. But engineers need experience operating boilers, and also need certificates for certain repair duties. Here is a link to their contract.

A custodial engineer at a Manhattan high school, who asked that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said his cleaners are hardly overpaid, especially in an expensive place like New York City.

"They don’t make a fortune. They make a living wage," he said.

As for students, "There’s no high school student I know of who would be willing to take the time to clean a bathroom the way my staff does, or to be held accountable the way my staff is."

The proposal is not realistic, he said. "It takes time to train people. I hire a new staff member, he doesn’t just walk in and start doing the job. Who’s gonna supervise these kids? You don’t let them sit in a lunchroom without an assortment of teachers, aides and staff. How do you propose they clean a floor unsupervised and be held responsible for it? What do you do with a kid who doesn’t do his job?"

The custodian said he often agrees with Mr. Gingrich on his assessment of Washington, "which is what he should stick to, and leave the running of the rest of the country to the people who get paid to do it."

Apparently, there are places where kids do work as janitors. A WNYC Radio producer, Richard Yeh, recalled taking on some cleaning duties at his school when he was growing up in Taipei, Taiwan, before moving to New York as a teenager.

“We were always made to clean our own classrooms and bathrooms,” he said. “At the end of every day we would sweep and scrub every area we touch, from blackboards and windows to toilets and sinks. It didn’t feel like punishment and, as I recall, my classmates and I enjoyed it. It was a daily break from the classes, and it certainly instilled in our young minds that we were responsible for our own cleanliness, because nobody else was going to clean up after us.”

He said the school also had professional cleaners.

Three 15-year-old sophomore students at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts gave Mr. Gingrich's proposal mixed reviews.

"I don’t think it’s fair, said Kim Chalfen. "You’re supposed to be studying."

Lila Chu chimed in: "If other students want to do it ..."

Kim interrupted: "No! That’s not fair."

Marisa Rose said, "If they want to do it, they should be able to."

On the other hand, Kim said, there may be a role model in Matt Damon’s character in “Good Will Hunting”: "You see? Janitor, he’s smart, he solves math equations."