Unionized Schools Plagued by Chronic Teacher Absences, Study Finds

Published November 16, 2017

“Nationally, 28.3 percent of teachers in traditional public schools are ‘chronically absent,’ meaning they miss more than ten school days a year for sick and personal leave,” David Griffith wrote in Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools, released in September 2017. “In contrast, only 10.3 percent of teachers in charter schools are chronically absent.”

“School systems have been generous in supplying teachers with excused absences,” Griffith wrote. “On average, teachers get more than twelve sick and personal days per year, though only one-third of US workers are entitled to ten or more sick days, even though the latter have a longer work year (up to 60 days more). For the most part, these generous leave policies are negotiated by teacher unions and school boards and incorporated into contracts (or sometimes state law). These policies explain why more than one-quarter of public school teachers in the United States are chronically absent—meaning they miss more than ten days of school per year due to sick or personal leave. In some states, the numbers are truly shocking. For example, three-quarters of teachers in Hawaii are chronically absent.”

More Unions, More Absenteeism

“The chronic absenteeism gap between charter and traditional public school teachers is largest in states where districts must bargain collectively but charters aren’t required to,” the report states. “Nationally, teachers in unionized charter schools are twice as likely to be chronically absent as teachers in non-unionized charters. In every state with both unionized and non-unionized charter schools, teachers in unionized charters are more likely to be chronically absent.”

Green Dot, the only major charter network that has unionized, “has the highest teacher chronic absenteeism rate of any network in the country,” the study found.

Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says unions are the main impetus behind chronic absenteeism.

“The patterns highlighted in the report suggest that much of the observed variation in teacher absenteeism is driven by collective bargaining, and in particular by the overly generous provisions in some districts’ collective bargaining agreements that give teachers as many as 15, 20, or even 25 days of paid sick and personal leave per year,” Griffith told School Reform News.

Calls for Reform

Griffith says reforming the rules on teacher absences could help curb chronic absenteeism.

“In theory, I think there are three steps we could and should take to reduce teacher absenteeism,” Griffith said. “First, we should reduce the number of paid sick and/or personal days teachers are guaranteed under state laws and district contracts. Second, we should incentivize improvement at the school level by including teacher chronic absenteeism in state accountability systems as a ‘nonacademic indicator’ of school quality. And finally, since charter schools have much lower rates of teacher absenteeism in almost every state, we should create more authentically independent charters that are free to set their own personnel policies when it comes to things like sick and personal leave.”

‘Unions Don’t Help at All’

Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, says teachers unions are the root of the problem.

“Collective bargaining agreements need to crack down on the problem,” said Sand. “Teachers should be allowed fewer sick days. Districts could even give bonuses to teachers who are rarely if ever ‘sick.’ Every time a teacher is absent, the district pays the absent teacher as well as her sub. The bonuses could be paid from money used to pay the sub.

“Teachers unions don’t help at all,” Sand said. “Via collective bargaining, they fight for too many sick days, with no incentive for teachers not to be sick. Even with extensive absences, schools can’t do much about it, maybe a toothless oral or written warning. And in most unionized districts, the teacher will never be fired, so there is little motivation to change his ways.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.


David Griffith, “Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, September 2017: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/teacher-absenteeism-in-charter-and-traditional-public-schools?source=policybot