THE old question, "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?" has been getting a new answer in recent years: "At work." For some students, flipping burgers takes precedence over flipping pages in textbooks. Earning competes with learning. The result, teachers say, is tired students and unfinished homework.
Now Washington State hopes to change all that. Next month the state's Department of Labor and Industries plans to adopt the nation's strictest child-labor regulations. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds will be limited to 20 hours of employment a week during the school year, with no work after 9 p.m. on school nights or after 10 p.m. on weekends. For 14- and 15-year-olds, the maximum will be 15 hours. The regulations also prevent teenagers from working in certain potentially dangerous jobs.
Students whose family income falls within 125 percent of the poverty line will be exempt. And employers who can show that longer hours will not affect the "health and welfare" of a particular student can extend the workweek to 28 hours.
Officials hope the proposed changes will send a clear message to students, parents, and bosses: Education must come first. A three-year study by a state labor committee found that teenagers who worked more than 20 hours a week risked failing basic subjects such as English, reading, and math.
Making education a top priority is an important goal. Still, it would be unfortunate if the restrictions had the unintended consequence of preventing some teenagers from getting any job at all. Severely restricting work hours also runs the risk of encouraging young people who are not being well served by schools to drop out. Although 9 p.m. is a reasonable quitting time on week nights, a 10 p.m. cutoff on weekends seems unnecessarily restrictive.
Stricter child-labor laws are not always better child-labor laws. Some labor specialists point out that if existing child-labor laws were properly enforced, there would be little need for more restrictions. But with or without legislation, parents, teachers, and employers must help young people to understand that the ticket to a successful future is not a paycheck today but a diploma and a degree tomorrow.