Newt Gingrich: Fire The Janitors, Let The Kids Clean The Schools

Apropos of James Joyner’s post this morning, one of Newt Gingrich’s greatest undoings has been his prediliction to talk about things without necessarily thinking about them. One example of that can be found in some comments he made in Massachusetts yesterday:

Via POLITICO’s Reid Epstein, Newt Gingrich tonight said at an address at Harvard that child work laws “entrap” poor children into poverty – and suggested that a better way to handle failing schools is to fire the janitors, hire the local students and let them get paid for upkeep.

The comment came in response to an undergrad’s question about income equality during his talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
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“This is something that no liberal wants to deal with,” Gingrich said. “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,” he said. “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.”

He added, “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.”

That’s Newt for you. Going from the not-so-bad idea that it’s a good idea to teach teenagers the value of a dollar, even if that means they just earn a few bucks cutting lawns in the neighborhood, to the idea that they should become janitor apprentices. Because we all know the successful career that will lead to. This is why I don’t see Gingrich lasting.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    I’d save even more money. I think cleaning should be part of the curriculum and not compensated. Work ethic. Burn off those french fries. Etc.

  2. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    They actually do something like this in Korea. At least some, if not all, of the middle schools and high schools in the cities that I have lived in require the children to sweep and mop the floors and wash the desk tops and blackboards before they leave.

    It doesn’t work very well–and schools in Korea have marble or granite floors and still have natural slate blackboards and thekids still can’t clean the rooms.

  3. Bruce Hall says:

    Boy, did you miss the point completely!

    As one who began working at the age of 12 cleaning dirty rugs and furniture, I earned and saved enough to be the first one in my family to go to college… and pay for it without non-existent student loans and the subsequent onerous debt. Yes, I worked full time while in college and took night classes for 3 hours throughout the week, but I did get my degree.

    I then entered the military and took advantage of a Masters program which meant performing all of my normal duties and then attending classes on my own time.

    Armed with a Masters degree, I left the military and had a pretty good career in the automotive industry. Somehow, I don’t feel that I was abused or harmed by the fact that I worked from the age 12 on. I don’t feel harmed by the fact that my first job was cleaning up the dirt of other people. In fact, I feel fortunate.

    Mr. Gingrich was telling my story.

  4. @Bruce Hall:

    And you missed my point.

    Gingrich was taking a good point and, in his usual “intellectual” manner, inflating it beyond all reality with a policy proposal that most people will view as nutty.

  5. Vast Variety says:

    When I was a Junior in high school I was considered to be at risk of dropping out so the school offered me a job as a janitorial assistant. All I did was vacume classroom carpets and sweep stair wells. It didn’t take all that long and I earned minimum wage. The upside is that it gave me a few bucks and as long as I stayed in school and worked on improving grades I could keep the job.

    But that’s not the same as what Newt here is suggesting, which I think would probably bump into the child labor laws.

  6. Terrye says:

    Dumb idea. I started working when I was 13. I don’t have a problem with young people working..but there is a lot more to being a janitor than mopping the floors.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    How much longer do we have to pretend to care what Newt thinks?

  8. Pug says:

    Why does the phrase pompous ass always come to mind when thinking of Newt Gingrich?

    What a blow hard.

  9. WR says:

    @Terrye: Terrye’s right. We should start the kids in factories when they’re four, so that when they’re 12 they’ve got the right skills to work as janitors.

    Not Terrye’s kids, of course. Just those kids.

  10. he is scum of the highest order.

  11. anjin-san says:

    These kids need to learn about honest labor. You know, the kind Newt engaged in when he took a seven figure payout to be fannie mae’s bitch…

  12. grumpy realist says:

    Considering the chemicals that professional janitors use to do their jobs, there’s also a problem of liability on the part of the schools.

    Teen-aged kids and caustic chemicals. Yeah, can’t possibly see any problem with that….just wait until the first lawsuit is brought by parents because Johnny got Drano flung into his eyes by the local bully/by kids who thought it would be fun/by accident.

    Newt is an idiot.

  13. Gerry W. says:

    This may be part of his six sigma plan. You eliminate people in the workforce. Students will do janitorial work, teachers will do something extra. Seen this all before, and this comes from the Jack Welch days at GE. Newt said he was going to implement six sigma in government and that seems to be the first sign. It may all look good on paper, but it is a pain for the average person.

    It is like telling your wife to wash the dishes, but then drop them and sweep the floor, and then drop that to do something else.

    And that is why, I have always said, we are up against 2 billion cheap laborers and the loss of wages and jobs, automation and the loss of jobs, lean principles (six sigma) and the loss of jobs, and mergers and acquisitions and more loss of jobs.

  14. Liberty60 says:

    Just remember-

    Newt is the smart one of the bunch.

  15. Delmar says:

    I am not a Newt fan, but there is something to this that is a good idea. The best thing for these schools is to turn the control of them over to the neighborhoods and local churches. Get the Federal and state gvt., judges, lawyers, and career bureaucrats out. Then the children will learn. Some of the best schools in the country are inner city schools – that have given control of the school to the educators and have been given real authority.

  16. michael reynolds says:


    Yeah, turn schools in the Bronx over to the “neighborhood” and the locals churches.

    That’s so dumb and of clueless on so many levels we could build a whole video game of stupid around it.

  17. WR says:

    @michael reynolds: I think the right’s dream education project is the one that crooked judge in Pennsylvania was running — the cops would haul some kid into court for truancy or some such, and the judge would sentence him to years in a work farm. One which would not only teach the kid strong moral fiber through exploitation and brutality, but would also pay the judge a healthy commission on each victim sentenced there.

    I’m stunned that Newt didn’t come up with this first.

  18. Liberty60 says:


    Actually local control per se is not a bad thing.

    What you propose has actually been tried.

    Charter schools, which have a documented track record of over a decade in practice, are the very essence of hands-off local control.

    What we* have learned is that charter schools are no better or worse than regular old public schools- some are terrific, some are rotten.

  19. Liberty60 says:

    This comment by Newt exemplifies what I heard a commenter on another blog say-

    That New poses as an “intellectual” by taking common ordinary issues and zooming out to 30,000 foot level, turning a question about school perfomance into a philosophical discussion of futurism, robotic mind melding, quantum theory, and Burkean social theory.

    I recognize it as the artful dodge of 3rd year college students who strive to sound sophisticated and name drop their way out of a tough question, endlessly throwing the chaff of terms and concepts wildly in hopes of evading any real statement.

    If Newt had stuck with “working at a job teaches young people important skills” together with “local community volunteers can give schools assistance” he wouldn’t get any grief- but only because it wouldn’t sound Important and a Big Ideas kind of thing to say.

  20. M. Bouffant says:

    @Bruce Hall:

    What was your job in the “automotive industry,” vacuuming cars?Why’d you enter the military after getting your college degree? Couldn’t find a real job, because the school you could afford on your earnings as a carpet cleaner & w/o loans wasn’t that good? Did the military pay for your master’s degree?

    non-existent student loans and the subsequent onerous debt
    Did all of this happen before the exploitative student loan industry was set up?

  21. Tari says:

    Wow, here in Houston that would save you a whole, whopping $16k per janitor per year. Because yes, people here are willing to work a full day cleaning up after 750 elementary school children for that little money. Tell me again why we need to take jobs away from people that poor and that hard working and give the jobs to kids? WTF?

  22. Joe Bar says:

    @M. Bouffant:

    Why do assume that entering the military is a bad thing? Ever serve? There’s a lot of smart people in today’s military. Sure, there’s also a selection of not-so-smart, but I’d wager that the average soldier/sailor/airman/marine is smarter than the average off-the-street guy.

  23. John says:

    I think this is a fantastic idea. I went to Chicago public schools. We wouldn’t have missed the janitors sleeping most of the day anyway. Give some of the kids the responsibility and the cash and you will see them start learning the real value of a dollar and start what is likely to be their first job in their lifelong career path.

    My first job as a kid was a dishwasher. Did it prepare me for a lifelong career in dishwashing? No, it made me realize what it was like to earn money and that I didn’t want to do manual labor. It was a great learning experience at 14 years of age. I was also a janitor at a factory. I swept up and cleaned the toilets.

    I also learned that no job is beneath me.

    If you can do something similar (job/life experience) for kids today, and reduce the unionized stranglehold on education budgets, even a tiny bit, I’m all for t.

  24. DEWEE says:

    I worked as a janitor in an old-folks home for 18 months in high school (prior to that I had been a baseball stadium usher, starting at 13). In the janitor job I learned a lot more than just how to clean a toilet (or several other bodily fluids or products). The older folks gave me a lot of wisdom.

    My parents couldn’t afford to pay for college. But a couple of engineering degrees (at a state school) and an MBA later, I now have PhDs from Harvard, Cornell, and Berkeley (plus a few Masters folks from Cambridge, Berkeley, and elsewhere) working for me.

    I benefited and learned from every job I held along the way, however menial. And janitor certainly wasn’t the last low level job I held. Add in grocery stockboy, meter reader/grunt laborer, and intern.

    The main issue I have with Newt’s suggestion is the part about throwing out employed janitors. If they have done nothing to deserve dismissal, they should not be let go. But the kids would benefit from doing some menial work.

  25. Porkov says:

    “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” It is evident to me that Doug Mataconis is a spoiled child who didn’t have to pick up his toys as a child, and thinks Gingrich is a bully for proposing that schools teach more than academics. Everyone should have the opportunity to go to boot camp and spend a couple years under military discipline before imposing their privileged opinions on the great unwashed.

  26. The point is not to teach kids how to be janitors. The point is to teach kids that hard work is rewarded. School is a bit of an abstraction: if you work hard for 12, 14, 16, or 20 years, you may someday be rewarded. But when you have a part-time job, you learn that your work will be rewarded in two weeks, not 20 years, with money now.

    And if you work hard in your school work you can combine this to get an even better paying job.

    And isn’t that the whole point of this entire educational exercise: to help people become better?

  27. DWPittelli says:

    Ironically, some if not most of the elite-tier prep schools have their students do such janitorial work for a few minutes a day, sweeping classrooms and such, for no pay.

  28. werbaz neutron says:

    I fail to see the outrage of suggesting students have a job to maintain their school in safe ways.

    Such a job has a lot of positive character building and pride building effects.

  29. reg says:

    What exactly is wrong with this idea? You just call it dumb without any explanation.

    Makes perfect sense to me. Eliminate some high-priced union jobs and give more jobs for kids, who need all the work experience they can get in this economy.

  30. Andy ManOngeg says:

    Boy, those libs are nutty.

  31. Steevo says:

    He was telling my story and many I knew. I’m in my mid 50s and from what I can remember growing up there was an eagerness with most of us kids desiring to have more than a few coins in our pockets to work. We would have jumped at the offer to make extra money doing janitor work in school. Initially I didn’t understand what Doug’s problem was but it’s not “intellectual” or nutty to me, just some common sense. Common sense in the day that is.

  32. Franklin says:

    Wow, someone alerted Newt’s staff and supporters to Doug’s post here. Interesting response, anything to stick it to the unions, right guys?

    BUT, that being said, it’s far from the worst idea Newt ever had.

  33. Gerry W. says:


    It is interesting to see the mood that is going against unions (our middle class) and that indoctrination must be coming from the right wing blogs, from Hannity, Levin, and FOX. Years ago, Hitler talked to his people on how bad the Jews and other people were, he even coaxed the population that he had to invade other countries to protect Germany.

    Today, with unionization down to around 7% from over 30%, the unions or the middle class is just bad people. Never mind that those same people who criticize that their own policies failed. Never mind you had a president that believed in his own ideology of “stay the course” and run the country and two wars into the ground. Never mind that you had a vice president who said “deficits don’t matter.” Never mind that you have income inequality. Never mind that wall street takes the money. And never mind our politicians are bought and paid for. The bottom line and the code word of the day is that unions (the middle class) is bad. That is all we need to know.

    Yeah, democrats may be dumb, but republicans are a bunch of nuts. Thanks for spending all the money and all the stimulus, and now we cannot get out of this mess. And you just leave the middle class behind.

  34. Rollory says:

    “Doug is an attorney in private practice in Northern Virginia”

    I was wondering how someone could be so very very stupid, but that does shed some light

  35. An Interested Party says:

    Let us not forget that the subject of this post thought it was a good idea to put children into orphanages as a way to “reform” welfare…

    What we* have learned is that charter schools are no better or worse than regular old public schools- some are terrific, some are rotten.

    Which just proves that where children live, who they live with, and what they are doing for all those hours when they aren’t in school is just as important, if not more so, than what particular school they are attending…

    Everyone should have the opportunity to go to boot camp and spend a couple years under military discipline before imposing their privileged opinions on the great unwashed.

    Oh my, I thought we lived in the United States of America, not ancient Sparta…

  36. TallDave says:

    to the idea that they should become janitor apprentices. Because we all know the successful career that will lead to

    That’s just asinine. No one is suggesting janitorial work — or delivering newspapers — is a great career, it’s not about that at all, it’s about developing a work ethic, learning the value of work, having a little cash, and having some pride in your school’s appearance, while eliminating gov’t jobs.

    Doug Mataconis owes Newt — and his readers — an apology for these ill-considered words.

  37. DHardt says:

    @grumpy realist: I was in tech theater in high school. They gave us power tools and caustic chemicals all the time. None of use lost any fingers or caused lasting damage. Letting kids work builds pride in themselves. Stop being such a sissy. No wonder my generation is out protesting out on the streets. The rest of my generation was raised by helicopter parents and wimps.

  38. Botha says:

    Newt is truly stupid. Janitors use chemicals that can maim and kill and he wants to put those in the hands of children. If you dont believe look in a janitors closet or ask one. I took a job doing floors for a month once between jobs and a little of one of the chemicals got on my shoelace. My cat played with my shoelace. She died. (yes it made me sad) Hes an out of touch bone head thinking you can put kids in that environment.

  39. G.A.Phillips says:

    Gingrich was taking a good point and, in his usual “intellectual” manner, inflating it beyond all reality with a policy proposal that most people will view as nutty.

    lol, that covers us all.

    It is a good way to cover the cost of the free meals:)

    Wow, someone alerted Newt’s staff and supporters to Doug’s post here. Interesting response, anything to stick it to the unions, right guys?


    Oh my, I thought we lived in the United States of America, not ancient Sparta…

    Dude we have tossed over 50 million babies into garbage pits because some oracles in black robes have deemed them unworthy, the rest are left out in the cold with the wolfs and donkeys…Sparta ain’t got crap on us…

    But always as we have self righteous barbarians thinking that they are civilized.

  40. says:

    For those in favor of this “great” idea please explain the logistics behind it. Now I’m assuming savings would involve cut pay by offering below minimum wage and foisting the medical insurance and other benefits onto the student’s parents, but we would need to have at least seven part time students for each adult janitor replaced (Remember are theoretical students only get one study hall class a day.) This would require seven times the safety equipment, uniforms and other personalized equipment. Seven times the bureacracy to get checks and train members, plus at least one new supervisor to make certain things are happening via proper methods (or even happening at all.) And you would basically be rolling over your workforce every year (if not every term) requiring brand new from scratch training every year and massively increased hiring and firing procedures.

    Some how I don’t see even coming close to saving anyone any money.

  41. Ben Wolf says:

    We’re talking about Newt Gingrich: the guy who thinks China is doing great because it doesn’t have a captal gains tax. The guy screaming about Bill Cinton’s lack of values while Newt himself was cheating on his wife. The guy who took a $1.6 million payoff from Freddie and Fannie to do nothing. He’s been a lazy, self-absorbed, pseudo-intellectual (I guess being a real one is too much work) his entire life. For him to lecture about others developing a work ethic takes real narcicism, unless he’s promoting a type of ethic which centers on gaming the American political system for personal gain.

  42. teapartydoc says:

    My Dad still tells a story about how his school in TN hadn’t bought firewood for the winter and the schoolmaster had a bunch of the boys chop down trees, and split and stack the wood, all on school property, for the upcoming winter. They also hired a sixteen year old cousin of his to drive the school bus because they couldn’t find a more responsible adult.

  43. Lina Inverse says:

    Post-WWII and perhaps before then this has worked for the Japanese. While there are of course exceptions like the cited one in Texas, like the Japanese after the war I’m not sure we can afford to pay public union inflated wages for this sort of work anymore, or at least most of it.

    WR: “I think the right’s dream education project is the one that crooked judge in Pennsylvania was running….”

    Note that this was a scheme by Democratic Party judges (and perhaps more of the county’s Democratic establishment); you can tell if for no other reason than that the Kids for Cash scandal isn’t world wide screaming headline news.

    How this can be recast as a “dream” of “the right” is beyond me.

  44. willis says:

    There is nothing about having a kid work as a janitor that points them to the career of janitor. It does work to develop the practice of self-reliance. To those not inclined to a career of janitor, it also helps reinforce the value of obtaining an education that qualifies them for other occupations. The occupywallstreet kids had it drummed into them that manual work was demeaning and they now consider charity superior to manual labor.

  45. WR says:

    @Franklin: I think you’re being mean saying this is a coordinated spamming. I mean, I really believe the guy who claims to have fifteen PhDs and uncountable Masters degrees. I mean, if someone that smart thinks that child labor laws are outdated, who are we to argue?

  46. WR says:

    @Lina Inverse: It’s consistently Republicans who are arguring that we need to repeal child labor laws. And all the little Newtites who are busily spamming this site with “I worked as a galley slave when I was 8, and now I’m the god-king of several countries” crap just proves that.

    Up next from the Republican party: Why slavery is really good for slaves.

  47. Franklin says:

    @WR: Heh. I’m just sayin’, I’ve never seen more than about 15 votes for any comment before, and we’ve got some with 50 or 60 all of a sudden.

  48. WR says:

    @Franklin: This happened once before with a different candidate. The explanation was that the piece got linked by one of the freak-show wingnut sites, and their people came flooding over to defend their scumbag of choice.

  49. grumpy realist says:

    No one answered my question: what are you going to do about the chemicals? And don’t try to tell me that this isn’t any different than what you did back in shop. First of all, there’s a heck of a lot of stricter control now on many of those materials. There’s a lot of stuff we used to do in shop that I doubt kids are allowed to do at present. Second, you’re not going to get any school principal to sign off on this unless all the parents allow releases from liability for any accidents/horseplaying around. You may not like it, but that’s what the present legal situation is. And the first time you have one of the kids get Drano thrown into his eyes by a bully, you are going to have a big stink on the part of the parents.

  50. anjin-san says:

    Tell me again why we need to take jobs away from people that poor and that hard working and give the jobs to kids? WTF?

    This way we can introduce the kiddies to the important right wing concept of “fighting for crumbs” at an early age..

  51. submandave says:

    Disgusted at all the dripping elitism in many comments.

    [T]he idea that they should become janitor apprentices. Because we all know the successful career that will lead to

    [T]he important right wing concept of ‘fighting for crumbs’

    Like how my local school district uses the stupid tag line “Every child, every day, college bound.” I’ve got a news flash: some folks don’t have the academic or intellectual capacity to do real college work, and some folks will be career janitors. And that’s OK and doesn’t make them or that career worse of of any lesser value. Don’t know about you, but when the cleaning crew come into my office I appreciate the work they do. When I was younger, I scrubbed a few heads, and there’s no better way to appreciate the work involved. Have the kids scrub the heads three days a week and see how many piss on the floor then. Nothing at all wrong with kids learning how to keep a place clean or do basic repairs.

  52. Gary G says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Newt Gingrich held up the College of the Ozarks as a model for other schools to follow: “You cannot apply to it unless you need student aid, and they have no student aid. You have to work 20 hours a week during the year to pay tuition and books. You work 40 hours a week during the summer to pay for room and board. Ninety-two percent of the students graduate owing no debt; the 8 percent who owe debt owe $5,000 because they bought a car.”

    I agree that the school does plenty right: It’s good for students to graduate debt-free, and to have work experience. It’s great that College of the Ozarks doesn’t participate in the federal student-loan and work-study programs. The school turns away nine applicants for every one it accepts, which might indicate that more schools like it would be well received. It seems to have reasonable academic statistics; the middle 50 percent of its students score a 20–25 on the ACT, which is a little above the average, and the six-year graduation rate is above the national average of 60 percent. But that doesn’t mean it’s an example of the free market at work, or that its policies can be effective on a wider scale.

    As Gingrich noted, the school has a policy of targeting students with financial need — in each class, the requirement is waived for only 10 percent of students. This can be seen as seeking out the people who are most in need of low-cost educational options. It can also be seen as vacuuming up as much federal money as possible