Editorial: 14-year-olds belong in school, not at work

The (Columbus) Republic

Sometimes we see bills moving through the Statehouse in Indianapolis that confirm our suspicions that many of our lawmakers have lost their commitment to the public good. Or maybe they’ve just lost their minds.

Niki Kelly of Indiana Capital Chronicle sets this particular table:

“A House employment committee voted 8-3 (Jan. 17) to ease several child labor laws, including allowing youth as young as 14 to work during school hours with parental permission.”

We are talking about eighth-graders here. We are talking about children, juveniles who have not yet fully developed.

In Indianapolis, a stone’s throw from the Statehouse, a large slogan towers above the Indiana government building. It reads, “Indiana: A State that Works”. We Hoosiers like to boast that we are a hard-working bunch, many of us raised up with that classic Midwestern work ethic. We identify with that, and we take justifiable pride in it.

But imagine we had such a commitment to helping Hoosier children ensure a better future. What if we were equally proud of a slogan for our children, like “Indiana: A State that Learns”? You can imagine it, but just don’t expect to see it anytime. Our lawmakers never learn.

Those representatives and senators who “toil” in the shadow of that “State that Works” sign are failing at a fundamental test by even considering this House Bill 1093. They are opening a door that would allow Hoosier children to abandon learning at a highly vulnerable age. This does not sound at all like a state that works. And it certainly isn’t one whose leaders learned history’s lessons that led to child labor laws in the first place.

The reporting from the Capital Chronicle noted that “a key amendment is largely aimed at Amish or Mennonite children who don’t go to school past eighth grade.” What a sham argument. There are roughly 63,000 Amish in Indiana, and far fewer Mennonites, so they represent somewhere around 1% of the state’s population. Plus, these communities already enjoy religious freedom protections in state and federal law that largely keep regulators out of their business and out here among the English, as some Amish say.

No, this bill isn’t about Amish youngsters. But it is a test for lawmakers. The question is simple: Are you willing to sacrifice vulnerable young Hoosiers’ educations and future prospects to expand a temporarily tight labor pool?

If lawmakers have no problem putting the needs of business that would like cheap, easily exploitable child labor ahead of the foundational, constitutional right of Hoosier children to a public education, they fail a basic test.

At bottom, this is an economic argument. Some lawmakers may say that there are cases where children this young must work in order to support their families. And if this is the justification for this legislation, our state lawmakers also have failed.

For if we are a state that works, our kids should not have to choose whether staying in high school — or even going to high school — is an unaffordable luxury.

Earlier this month, the Indiana Department of Education proudly proclaimed that high school graduation rates had increased after years of decline. We celebrated that.

There’s nothing to celebrate when our lawmakers encourage kids to drop out.

The (Columbus) Republic is a sister newspaper to the Daily Journal. Send comments to [email protected].