By Victor Skinner
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A new article in a scholarly journal is shining a light on a very expensive problem in public schools that most parents and taxpayers are largely unaware of: chronic teacher absenteeism.
Former Wall Street Journal reporter June Kronholz penned an enlightening in-depth look at the problem for the spring edition of Education Next. She highlights the prevailing research through the context of her son’s stint as a substitute teacher during his time off as a U.S. Marine.
“In the college town where he was living, an astonishing 47 percent of the school district’s 721 teachers were absent more than 10 days during the school year, according to data the district reported to the U.S. Department of Education for (the) 2009-10 study,” Kronholz wrote.”
“That number rose to 61 percent in an elementary school with one of the district’s highest percentages of black, Hispanic, and low-income children.”
While that might be surprising to some, EAGnews’ research shows it isn’t uncommon. In recent years, EAGnews has reviewed hundreds of teachers union contracts across the country and requested teacher absentee information from many of them through public information requests.
We’ve found that generous leave policies outlined in union contracts correlate to a high number of teacher absences, multi-million dollar expenses on substitute teachers, and five-figure retirement or attendance bonuses for educators who have accumulated unused sick days throughout their careers.
Researchers cited in Kronholz’s article have come to the same conclusion, pointing to evidence that some teachers are abusing their days off, particularly those in schools serving a high percentage of low-income minority students.
The union influence on chronic teacher absenteeism manifests itself in several ways, according to recent data in Kronholz’s report. Teachers in traditional unionized public schools, for example, take more days off than teachers in charter and private schools, which tend to be non-union. Teachers with union tenure protections also take off more days than probationary teachers.
Teachers in bigger schools (which typically have stronger teachers unions) also take off more days than their counterparts in smaller schools, according to the data.
But perhaps the most troubling aspect of chronic teacher absenteeism is the impact it has on student learning.
What’s worse, education experts believe that once an opportunity to learn is lost, it’s lost forever, and students in some of the country’s worst schools are suffering the consequences.
“ … Duke researchers found that being taught by a sub for 10 days a year has a larger effect on a child’s math score than if he’d changed schools, and about half the size of the effect of poverty,” Kronholz wrote.
Four billion dollars per year
In many school districts, particularly large urban districts, the number of days teachers take off each year and the financial cost of their absences can be staggering.
“Last summer, for example, the Camden, New Jersey, school board outsourced its substitute hiring to a private vendor because the job was so onerous: between teachers calling in sick or on leave, the district needed to find subs for up to 40 percent of its teachers each day, it told the newspaper,” Kronholz wrote.
“In a 2011 report for the Providence, Rhode Island, school board, researchers at Brown University’s Urban Education and Policy program found that the district’s 1,321 teachers took off an average of 21 days each per school year.”
Kronholz wrote that at least half the teachers in 208 Rhode Island schools surveyed by the education department for its 2009-10 report were off more than 10 days per year. Teachers in Hawaii, Arkansas, Oregon, and New Mexico reported similar totals, though slightly less.
“Nationally, 36 percent of teachers were absent” more than 10 days per year, according to the data.
Researchers from Harvard, Duke, the National Council on Teacher Quality, and others with an education focus have shed some light on who is abusing their leave time, and why.
Teachers in large schools take off more days than those in smaller schools, and elementary educators are more apt to take a sick day than high school teachers. Tenured teachers were absent 3.7 days more than those without the union protections, data shows.
“Teachers in traditional districts seem to take off more than those in charters. Using the education department’s Office for Civil Rights data, (Harvard researcher Raegen) Miller estimates that about 37 percent of teachers are absent more than 10 days at district elementary and middle schools compared to 22 percent at charters,” Kronholz wrote.
Many of the absences fell on Fridays, and “personal illness” leave often lasts just shy of the number of days that would trigger the need for a doctor’s excuse.
EAGnews has also found numerous examples of excessive absences in recent years.
Data provided by Newark, New Jersey public school officials shows Newark Teachers Union employees took off a total of 64,196.47 sick days, 10,558 personal days and 11,056.44 professional days in the 2009-10 school year, which ultimately cost the district $29.9 million for substitutes.
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, the district’s 2,075 teachers took a total of 27,337 leave days in the 2009-10 school year. On average, teachers in Fort Wayne Community Schools took more than 13 days off that school year, or 6.8 percent of the contractual work year. Fort Wayne Schools, the second largest district in the state at the time, spent more than $4 million on substitutes to cover the absences.
Kronholz highlighted other school districts across the country with very high substitute expenses tied to excessive absences, including $19 million for subs in Fairfax County, Virginia in 2012, and $10.8 million budgeted for Cleveland schools this year.
Nationally, “Raegan Miller puts the cost of substitute teachers at $4 billion a year, or about 1 percent of total K-12 spending,” Kronholz wrote.
While the numbers are quite eye-opening, there’s evidence to suggest the problem may be much worse than people realize because of inconsistencies in reporting absences.
“The education department reported after the 2003–04 school year that 5.3 percent of U.S. teachers are absent on any given day, and that’s still the number most researchers use,” Kronholz wrote.
“But districts account for absences differently: some would count the tennis coach absent if he left his gym classes in the hands of a sub to attend an out-of-town tournament with his team; others wouldn’t. Some count professional development days when subs are hired to take the class; others don’t.”
The problem? Teachers union contracts
Union officials claim that teachers and other school employees need more time off than most workers because of their close contact with a large number of students puts them at a higher risk of contracting an illness. They’ve also pointed to the fact that many educators are women and mothers, and often have to attend to their own children, Kronholz notes.
But researchers cited in the Education Next have come to a much more logical conclusion about why so many teachers are ditching class: because they can.
Union contracts for 113 large school districts tracked by the National Council on Teacher Quality show the agreements give teachers an average of 13.5 sick and personal days each year for school years that last an average of about 180 days. Some provide much more time off.
“In Columbus, Ohio, the contract allows teachers 20 paid days off, in addition to school holidays and summer breaks. Teachers have 21 days in Boston, 25 days in Hartford, and up to 28 days in Newark, according to NCTQ,” Kronholz wrote.