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Teacher Absenteeism Is a Problem in Oklahoma’s Public Schools

November 7, 2017 - 2:36pm CST

By J. E. McReynolds

In Oklahoma, the chronic teacher absenteeism rate for charter schools is around 5 percent. In traditional public schools, it’s 20 percent.

Students learn more when their regular teachers are in the classroom. They learn less when those teachers are absent. Charter schools have much lower rates of chronic absenteeism among teachers than do traditional public schools.

Ergo, charter school students have a better shot of getting the most exposure to teachers who aren’t taking sick leave or personal leave.

The above conclusion isn’t an opinion. It’s based on a statistical examination of teacher absenteeism rates across the United States. The findings support the contention that charter school teachers have a better attendance rate than traditional public school teachers. Also, the greater the presence of unions in schools, the higher the chronic absentee rate.

In a study released in September by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (“Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools”), Fordham senior research and policy associate David Griffith concludes that teachers in traditional public schools are nearly three times as likely to be chronically absent as teachers in charter schools.

In eight states, including Oklahoma, absentee rates are at least four times higher.

Teachers in traditional schools are absent more often than charter school teachers in all but one of the 35 states that have a significant charter school presence.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as being greater than 10 days taken for sick leave or personal leave during the school year. In Oklahoma, the chronic teacher absenteeism rate for charter schools is around 5 percent. In traditional public schools, it’s 20 percent.

Since no union presence is extant in Oklahoma’s charter schools, the union factor is not significant.

Griffith also found that teachers in general have a higher absenteeism rate than other workers. On average, teachers miss about eight school days a year (not counting school breaks and holidays), while the average U.S. worker takes about 3.5 sick days per year. Chronic absenteeism among a subset of teachers compounds the problem for many U.S. students.

While taking roll is a routine part of a teacher’s daily duties, students don’t get to measure teacher attendance. Griffith says his findings suggest that chronic absenteeism rates in traditional public schools are at least partly attributable to the “generous leave policies enshrined in state and local collective bargaining agreements.” In other words, the more leave a worker has a right to take, the more he or she is likely to take.

“Why would we hold schools accountable for the attendance of their students but not of their teachers?” Griffith asks. “How can anyone expect students to learn when their teachers are absent?”

None of the 50 states uses teacher chronic absenteeism rates as an indicator of school quality, the study notes, “despite the fact that most schools already report a version of such data to the federal Office for Civil Rights.”

Just one of the nation’s leading charter school networks (California’s Green Dot system) is fully unionized. In that network, the chronic teacher absenteeism rate is three times higher than the five largest Charter Management Organizations. KIPP, which has two schools in Oklahoma City, is among the largest CMOs used in the comparison.

Griffith concludes that improving teacher attendance nationwide would be the equivalent of extending the school year or hiring thousands of more teachers—all at no additional cost to taxpayers.

A former managing editor of The Journal Record, J. E. McReynolds has served as a general assignment reporter, business editor, and opinion editor of The Oklahoman.