Research & Commentary: West Virginia Public Schools Suffer Because Teachers are Always Absent

Published October 17, 2019

Data released by the West Virginia Department of Education shows more than half of Mountain State public school teachers are chronically absent and have missed at least 10 days of school for at least four consecutive years. In Fiscal Year 2016, 50.83 percent of teachers missed at least 10 days, rising to 51.44 percent in FY 2017, 52.46 percent in FY 2018, and 52.75 percent in FY 2019. Further, more than 10 percent of West Virginia teachers have missed at least 20 days of school for the past four years.

When reached for comment, Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the country’s largest union and special interest group said, “teachers get sick too.” West Virginia teachers are given 15 days of sick leave each year.

(It should also be noted that, under West Virginia statute, a student who misses 10 school days a year unexcused is officially considered a truant and his or her parents can be fined up to $100 by the state, plus the cost of prosecution. If a second case of truancy occurs, the parents could also be sent to jail for up to 20 days.)

Naturally, students suffer when teachers are out of their classrooms. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) shows 10 days of teacher absences over the course of a school year can significantly reduce student achievement in mathematics. Teacher absences, the study found, “radically reduced … instructional intensity” by creating “discontinuities of instruction [and] the disruption of regular routines and procedures of the classroom.” Another NBER paper found replacing an average-performing teacher with a substitute is the equivalent of replacing that teacher with one who sits in just the 10th to 20th percentile range of productivity.

This certainly shows in the performance of West Virginia students on the state’s assessment exam, the West Virginia Summative Assessment. For the 2018–19 school year, only 46 percent tested to grade level in reading, while just 39 percent did so in mathematics.

These startling absentee rates and middling test scores underscore the need to drastically expand private school choice programs, including education savings accounts (ESAs), school vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships, in West Virginia so parents have alternatives to the neighborhood public schools their children are currently forced to attend. 

Copious empirical research covering ESAs and other school choice programs shows they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. 

Students at private schools are also less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

Recent polling in West Virginia shows voters view ESA programs favorably and are not very satisfied with the current shape of the state’s public school system. A February 2017 poll conducted by the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy found 56 percent of respondents are in favor of an ESA program in the Mountain State. Forty-eight percent said they think public schools are either “poor” or “failing.”

Currently, private school choice in West Virginia is literally nonexistent. The school a child attends should not be determined solely by his or her ZIP code. However, this is currently the case for almost all West Virginia children. The goal of public education in the Mountain State should be to enable all parents, no matter their income level, to choose which schools their children attend.

The following documents provide more information about teacher absenteeism and education choice.

Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools
In this study, David Griffith, a Fordham Institute senior research fellow and policy associate, examines teacher chronic absenteeism rates in charter and traditional public schools and finds teachers in traditional public schools are almost three times as likely to be chronically absent as teachers in charter schools. The chronic absenteeism gap between charter and traditional public school teachers is largest in states where districts, but not charters, are required to bargain collectively. Griffith’s results suggest the high chronic absenteeism rates he observes for teachers in traditional public schools are at least partly attributable to the generous leave policies enshrined in state laws and local collective bargaining agreements.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

2018 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent and Teacher Experiences, Accountability, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Heartland’s government relations department, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.