The malice of absence

By Larry Sand
September 26, 2017

Thanks to collective bargaining, traditional public school teachers “get sick” way too often.

It’s no secret that many teachers take advantage of the “sick days” that are part of a typical union collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Of course, while sick days are used legitimately by all teachers at some point, many (including yours truly, on occasion) have been known to call in sick when perfectly healthy. My middle school was typical, where teachers invariably got “sick” much more often on Mondays and Fridays. And some, with a nod and a wink, would get a bad flu at certain times, like the three days before the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, giving them a ten-day paid vacation.

But now, using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, a study released last week by the Fordham Institute delves into the depth of the absentee problem. On average, teachers miss about eight school days a year due to sick and personal leave, while the average U.S. worker takes only about three-and-a-half sick days per annum. Worse, the study shows that 28.3 percent of teachers in traditional public schools (TPS) are chronically absent, which is defined as missing 11 or more days of school per year due to illness or personal reasons. Interestingly, in charter schools – most of which are union-free – the corresponding number is just 10.3 percent.

Even within charter schools, there is a glaring disparity. Teachers in unionized charters are almost twice as likely to be chronically absent as their colleagues in non-unionized charters – 17.9 percent to 9.1 percent.

Much more importantly, the study’s author, David Griffith, stresses that there’s a very direct link between teacher attendance and student achievement. He writes, “There are roughly 100,000 public schools in the United States, with over 3 million public school teachers and at least 50 million students. So every year, at least 800,000 teachers in the U.S. are chronically absent, meaning they miss about 9 million days of school between them, resulting in roughly 1 billion instances in which a kid comes to class to find that his or her time is, more often than not, being wasted….”

Of course, when the regular teacher calls in sick, a substitute is contacted. While there are some great subs who teach the assigned subject matter, all too often, the sub doesn’t show up or can’t control the class or has his own agenda for the day or….

This study is yet another in a growing list that shows CBAs are harmful to students. In 2015, researchers Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willen found that laws requiring school districts to engage in the collective bargaining process with teachers unions lead students to be less successful in later life. In 2009, Stanford researcher Caroline Hoxby detailed in practical terms how CBAs stifle any management flexibility in determining the best slot for a teacher at a given school as well as denying them the opportunity to get rid of the underperformers – rigidity being the hallmark of CBAs. In 2007, Stanford researcher Terry Moe found that CBAs appear to have a strongly negative impact in larger school districts, but seem to have no effect in smaller ones (except possibly “for African American students—which is important indeed if true.”) 

Some observers have disputed that CBAs are the culprit. National Council on Teacher Quality President Kate Walsh claims that the disparity is due to school culture. She points to discrepancies in teacher absenteeism rates between cities. For example, more than 30 percent of TPS teachers miss more than 10 days in unionized Chicago, while in San Francisco, also unionized, it’s 10 percent. Walsh claims, “The difference is there’s a cultural expectation you show up.”

So Walsh is simply saying that culture can trump CBAs . While this may be true, SF is an outlier because union-orchestrated CBAs invariably promote a very distinct culture, and it is not one that is healthy for children. Teachers are human. If you can get paid for not working, why work?

Not surprisingly, union leaders were not singing the praises of the Fordham report. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten huffed, “The reality is that charter schools need better (teacher) leave policies, not worse ones, a fact ignored by Fordham.” She then pooh-poohed the data, and suggested that the study should have examined the “root causes” of absenteeism. “Teachers, most of whom are women, face unique stressors, including caring for families and working beyond the school day,” she said.

The union boss did not address that fact that women who teach in charters seem to be able to manage their “unique stressors” considerably better than their counterparts in TPS. (Weingarten’s pathetic excuse was just one of many coming from teacher union honchos. For more examples, see Rick Hess’ piece on the subject here.)

When kids are absent too much, a parent can expect a knock on the door from a truant officer (or as they are now euphemistically called, “Pupil Services and Attendance Counselors.”) The government worker will try to find out why the kid is not in school. But when a teacher has excessive absences, parents and kids can’t go knocking on her door. The teacher still receives full pay and benefits for the days that she misses. But then again, parents and kids don’t have a union.

Teacher union leaders constantly talk about the “right to collectively bargain” It is not a “right.” In fact, it’s wrong. Very wrong.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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