In NYC Public Schools Unionized Workers Win, Pupils Lose


New York City is home to more than 220,000 children living in poverty. Many live in households with at least one parent who is not employed–and as I wrote recently, two-thirds of those in extremely poor households don’t have even one parent who works. Hope and opportunity, for many of these children, must seem a distant promise.

For generations, America has entrusted our schools with the futures of our children. Education, we have rightly told our kids, can help them get ahead. Yet for the thousands of poor young New Yorkers who make their way to school each morning, this, too, must seem hollow. More than one-third of their schools are classified as “failing.” Students pass through the years despite struggling with basic skills like reading and writing. Fewer than one in four is ready for college by the time they finish high school.

Some people, however, are thriving in the city’s failing schools. In many of the same neighborhoods where children go home to extreme poverty and households without a single working parent, custodians in the schools make six figures. In fact, their union contracts guarantee many of them salaries far in excess of teachers in the same schools.

As The New York Post discovered last year, 20 public school janitors make more than $140,000 a year. And the disparity is not limited to a few odd cases: the base salary for a first year custodial engineer is almost $80,000, while new teachers without graduate degrees make about $45,000, NBC New York reported recently, teacher salaries max out at around $100,000 in base pay, while the custodial engineers can make up to $114,000 in base pay.

Wouldn’t it be great if New York City schools served their students as well as they serve some of their custodians?

Students–especially those from very poor families–would be better served if they had the opportunity to earn money part-time at school by doing some of the tasks custodians are now performing so expensively.

Dozens of poor students could have part-time, paying jobs for the $100,000 a year New York schools pay some custodians. For that amount, more than 30 children could work just two hours each school day and each take home $3,000 a year by the time they are 12 or 13 years old.

Some of this work could be clerical; other tasks could be janitorial, such as cleaning the cafeteria, or emptying the trash, or vacuuming the classrooms. These are similar to the chores many parents require their kids to do at home, and it would allow 12- and 13- year olds to make money they desperately need. Giving children the opportunity to earn money would help teach work habits, and letting them do so in their schools would build a stronger commitment to that community.

This idea is not far from a proposal Time’s Joe Klein made two decades ago. As he recalled recently, he wrote “that the school janitors had a contract that paid them more than teachers received (nearly $60,000–and now nearly double that) but, according to said contract, they only were required to mop the cafeteria floor once a week. I suggested at the time that maybe the city could save some money by contracting out the heavy-duty janitorial work, but also build some character and community spirit by having the kids and their parents help keep the schools clean.”

Klein makes another excellent point about the work schools already require students to do, observing the oddity that although “many high schools now require some form of public service–often community cleanup programs–said service can’t take place within the school itself.”

America’s poorest students need the world’s best education system, strong work habits, opportunity, earned income, and a little hope.

Compared with using taxpayer money to pay custodians more than teachers and multiple times the average income of neighborhood families, giving students the opportunity to work hard and earn money at school makes a world of sense.