Study: Teachers absent less in charters; teachers union, charter advocates skeptical

Monitor staff
Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Nationwide, and in New Hampshire, teachers in charter schools are far more likely to show up to work than those in traditional public schools, according to new research by a conservative think tank.

Across the country, teachers in traditional public schools are nearly three times more likely to be chronically absent – missing 10 or more days of school – than charter school teachers, according to the report from the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Twenty-eight percent of traditional public school teachers are chronically absent, compared with 10 percent in charter schools. In New Hampshire, the pattern is more pronounced, researchers say, with 31 percent of public school teachers chronically absent compared with 5 percent of charter school teachers.

Prior research has suggested that when teachers miss school on a regular basis, learning suffers – one study from Harvard academics looking at one urban district found that when teachers missed 10 days or more, math scores dipped.

The state’s largest teachers union called the report “shameful,” and the state’s leading charter advocate also took issue with the researchers’ conclusions as well.

The Fordham study was descriptive, which means it can’t show causality. But its authors said the findings suggest that strong union protections played into whether teachers regularly called in sick. In unionized charters, for example, 18 percent of teachers are chronically absent, whereas only 9 percent of teachers in non-unionized charters are.

“Although there is no clear relationship between collective bargaining laws and teacher chronic absenteeism in district schools, the gap between charter and district teachers is smallest in states where collective bargaining is illegal (such as Georgia and Texas), and in states where charters are legally bound to district contracts (such as Alaska),” the authors wrote.

But the Fordham researchers also added that variation in absenteeism across schools within the same district suggested other factors, like culture and working conditions, likely play a role. A “no excuses” culture might contribute to fewer absences, they wrote – as might policies that improve working conditions, like on-site day care.

Megan Tuttle, the president of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association, slammed the report as an attack on teachers.

“Teachers dedicate their lives to their students, often reaching into their own pockets to purchase supplies and food. To paint them, as this report tries to do, as somehow focused only on themselves is shameful,” she said in a statement.

Tuttle also argued that when teachers took time off, they usually did so for legitimate reasons.

“You know, 75 percent of our members are women. Did the report consider maternity leave as a chronic absence? In many districts, before a teacher can use other leave time for maternity, they must first use all their available sick days,” she said. (Maternity leave was counted as a chronic absence, a spokeswoman for Fordham said.)

Matt Southerton, the president of the New Hampshire Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he had qualms about the data researchers used and was “skeptical” of the report’s conclusions, at least where New Hampshire is concerned.

The think tank relied on numbers from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for their study, where the most recent data is from the 2013-14 school year. That year, there were only 125 charter school teachers working in New Hampshire, and the sector has since roughly doubled in size, he said.

“For these and other reasons, I think that it was probably a mistake for (the) report’s authors to include New Hampshire in the report, and I am skeptical that the gap between traditional public schools and public charter schools is actually as large as reported,” Southerton wrote in an email.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)