Tag Archives: pension reform

Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal

I’m going to start by observing that I’m not convinced that teachers’ use of sick leave is a problem. This Clotfelter et. al study observes that teachers’ absentee rate in and of itself is nothing to be fussed about:

Although absence rates in teaching tend to be higher than ostensibly comparable figures for other similar occupations and sectors, however, they are not wildly out of line. In fact, one could argue that it is precisely the opportunity to take the occasional day off that makes a teaching career attractive to many people with children. Except for schools and districts with persistently high rates of absence, then, the rate of teacher absences itself should probably not be a cause for great concern.

On the other hand, Kate Walsh, says reformers have only recently decided to make an issue of teacher absenteeism as just another way that teachers suck, so I’m sure the complaints are going to get louder in the days to come.

My own use of sick time is next to non-existent. I have used 2.something days in 4 years. My first year, I had a recurring and dangerous infection that simply wouldn’t go away. Moreover, each recurrence required use of some really severe antibiotics that made me so sick that one morning I literally walked/ran out of class to throw up in the huge garbage can parked conveniently outside my door (not there, I hasten to add, for that purpose). I walked back in, a student gave me a fresh bottle of water (the school didn’t have drinking fountains), and I finished the day without incident. I took a partial day when the infection first showed up, and one full day when the infection returned overnight; in both cases I had to go to the doctor and then wait for the meds to take effect.

My second year, I took no sick days, but was forced to use a sub for six days of required professional development. Had I not been completely inept at using the automated absentee system, I would have been gone for eight days, but in two instances I screwed up and no sub was available at the last minute, so I skipped PD. (I should have made the same mistake 6 more times, but I was afraid they’d notice.)

Last year, I taught an entire day with a scratched cornea, wondering why the hell my head hurt so much. Two hours after school ended, I decided I may as well stop in at an urgent care to see why my allergies weren’t responding to medication, and was amazed when the doctor made the problem go away with some anesthetizing eyedrops—one of the only times a doctor has genuinely helped me with a medical issue. He then gave me some antibiotics to put in my eye overnight. They did the job, but an allergic reaction to the ointment made my eye look like something out of a horror film. I went into school, asked for a sub, taught first period with my sunglasses on to spare my students the trauma of my eye (most of them demanded a peek anyway), and left when the sub showed up. I then came back in after school for a department meeting. So, one day.

This year, I haven’t taken any days off. Several students have commented, unprompted, that I’m the only teacher they have who’s never used a sub.

In other words, my proposed remedy to any purported “sick leave” problem is that of someone with extraordinarily good health, a ridiculously high pain tolerance, and no kids at home. Before teaching, I spent only five and a half years in a full-time job, which is the only time I had paid vacation, sick leave, and health insurance. I’ve spent the majority of remainder of those twenty years working contract or temp, as an admin worker, a tech consultant, or a test prep instructor/tutor. In those careers, I got no sick time. Ever.

I agree with every word of Paul Bruno’s comments here. The year of forced professional development was nightmarish; I knew the kids would waste the day, but I had to prepare for it anyway. Math and science teachers have it tougher than English and history teachers here, I’m sure. If I were ever to think of taking a day off, the amount of preparation work would quickly banish any appeal.

It’s clear that most teachers either don’t agree with us or have compelling reasons to be absent—or both. I remember one day at my last school seventeen teachers called in sick on one day, and at least one day this year so many teachers were absent we ran out of subs and covering teachers and the admins had to step in. However, I’ve never gotten the impression that the admins considered this more than a minor inconvenience; teacher absenteeism at both schools is a non-issue. I know my last school district simply wouldn’t pay a teacher who took the Monday or Friday off around a 3-day weekend unless it was a documented illness. That seems a simple enough remedy. I don’t think my current district does this. (One question that arises in these discussions: are the absentee rates distinguishing between professional development and teacher-initiated absences? The Clotfelter study does make that distinction; I’m not sure all do.)

I often read ignoramuses who vent about the supposed idiocy of including unused sick time in teacher pension payouts, or advocate “use it or lose it” restrictions. Here’s a fun one:

Imagine two teachers, identical in every way except unused sick time. They’ve each been teaching for 30 years, have final average salaries of $86,636 and retire at age 60. One has the average 1.84 years of unused sick time; the other has none. The difference in lifetime pension payouts is more than $115,000. When you consider that there are 91,000 retired teachers collecting a pension, that difference starts to add up.

Jesus, this is irritating.

Suppose Teacher A and Teacher B each get 10 days of sick leave per year. At the end of the year, they are paid for all unused days. Both teachers make about $63,000/year and work 182 days a year.

Teacher A takes all ten days. She costs the school $350/day (a salary of $63,000 divided by 182), plus $100/day in sub and administration expenses. Total cost: $64,000

Teacher B takes no sick leave. She costs the school $63,000. But she makes less money per hours worked than Teacher A.

So spare me the crap arguing that paying teachers for unused sick leave is just another entitlement, okay? Wail about pension costs, fine. Give the teachers the money at the end of each year—perhaps with the option of putting it into a separate retirement account, also fine. Argue for reduced sick days for all teachers, go to town. But do not for a moment pretend that paying teachers who didn’t use their sick days is an injustice, because even leaving student achievement aside, these teachers are bargains.

If pension costs for teachers and other government workers are exacerbated by reimbursing them for unused sick leave at retirement, then by all means pay them their entire daily rate for the unused time at the end of each year.

But while this will solve the pension problem, it won’t necessarily solve the costs of teacher absenteeism—substitutes and, perhaps, weaker student achievement.

Most studies I’ve read (admittedly, I haven’t researched extensively) don’t address the dual problems of teacher sick pay and absenteeism—that is, they are focused entirely on either pension costs or day to day costs, and so want to decrease overall sick time or accrued sick time. They ignore the fairness problem I’ve outlined above: teachers who don’t take sick leave are costing the district less than those who are. Not reimbursing them for the money they’ve saved the district is simply unfair. Besides, without reimbursing them, any “use it or lose it” policy for teachers is a foolish idea, since it will increase absenteeism among teachers who otherwise wouldn’t think of taking time off. Any teacher—yes, even me—is going to take sick days if they will otherwise lose them.

I like this Clotfelter study (he’s done more than one on absenteeism) because it focuses on an approach for reducing teacher absenteeism, proposing “A revenue-neutral policy change , incorporating $100 in savings associated with averted payments to substitute teachers, would thus increase teacher salaries by roughly $400 per year, in exchange for teachers accepting a $50 charge for each sick day taken”.*

Thus my proposal to both reduce pension costs and teacher absenteeism:

  • Give teachers a fixed number of sick/personal days to use during the year.
  • Charge teachers $50 for each sick day taken up to the contracted amount.
  • At the end of each school year, pay teachers their full daily rate for their unused sick time.
  • Districts that want to give teachers even more incentive for staying in the classroom can give more money upfront and charge more for absences. I really like the idea of a separate retirement account (teachers have something but lordy, I can’t remember what it’s called), possibly with a matching payment in appreciation of their dedication to maintaining consistent student learning environments.

So if, as Kate Walsh asserts, paying teachers for not costing their districts more money is the new blame game, reformers might want to get it right the first time, by rewarding teachers who don’t use their time, while asking those who do to offset some of the costs.

Most teachers will hate it, of course. But when has that stopped reformers?

*(Note: the study uses North Carolina data, in which the teachers are charged $50 for each day taken after their allocated sick leave, but the researchers propose moving that fee to the first day and beyond.)


On the CTU Strike

Okay, unless I missed something, Rahm is CTU’s bitch.

Chicago, which is mostly broke, is hiring more teachers in languages, music and special ed, paying them more salary, paying them for supplies (still very little), paying them for suspensions, agreeing to limit their class sizes, paying their health premiums same as always, maybe even paying them for paternity leave. In return, they got….very little. They can hire new teachers over laid off teachers. They can use test scores for teacher evaluations—up to 30%.

I was enthralled by the CTU strike. Totally fascinated that an extremely overweight, frowsy, no-bullshit, way the hell left of center black woman virtually coldcocked a younger, relatively good-looking hard ass Democrat mayor who’s best buds with the big O.

I’m also pleased with the results, because the media was entirely on Rahm’s side. Harold Myerson and, much later, Eugene Robinson were the only major columnists who came out for the teachers. The Nation supported unions, for the most part. Everyone else slammed the unions hard. There were the cautious skeptics, like Kevin Drum, but almost no one criticized Rahm for being anything but too soft, while there were plenty of CTU beatdowns like this Charles Lane rant, which was truly depressing, since I normally like Lane.

Any story that up and bitchslaps the opinion leaders is a joy to behold. The elites are largely of one mind on education reform, even those who aren’t actually in the reform business; whether neo-liberal or conservative, it’s up with accountability and choice, down with unions who protect “bad teachers”. They really don’t seem capable of grasping that after 10-15 years of non-stop rhetoric on the supposed failure of public schools, they’ve barely moved the needle on public opinion, which isn’t sure whether the rhetoric is true and just not relevant, or a flat-out lie, or some of both. So when the polls showed the Chicago residents supporting the unions (Hispanics and blacks supporting by a substantial majority; whites were at 48%, which is much higher than I would have anticipated given how few white kids attend CPS), it was a hoot to watch everyone struggle to accomodate reality. Hard to call parents stupid when your big current issue is parental triggers, but really, what options are there?

The education reform movement and its growing body of elite adherents live in an echo chamber. Their political success, like NCLB and teacher evaluations via test scores, has been gained by a combination of federal fiat and public indifference for a cause that doesn’t affect most voters and sure sounds noble. Their own surveys reveal that public support for reform causes is soft, but they all keep talking as if they’re riding a wave of political outrage with just those nasty unions—not the teachers, just the unions—opposing the will of the people.

A Gallup poll reveals once again that more people think NCLB made public education worse than made it better, and a large majority thinks it made no difference or made things worse. And that’s when they are asked about education at the national level; everyone knows what Americans think of their local schools. Like Obamacare, education reform isn’t gaining fans with time.

But if I’m right about public indifference/rejection, why are charter schools growing like weeds?

I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around, much less black or Hispanic. White parents don’t really want too many Asians around, either, but that’s the opposite of the “bad kids” problem.

Parents don’t care much about teacher quality. They care a lot about peer group quality.

They are right to worry. Before I became a teacher, I’d read other teachers talk about how just a few kids can really disrupt a classroom, moving management from a no-brainer to the primary focus of the day. Now I am one of those teachers. I’ve worked in several schools in which the overwhelming presence of low income students who didn’t care about their grades has utterly removed the “stigma of an F” from the entire population, causing panic in the upper middle income white parents who can’t quite afford private school yet live in a district that worries about lawsuits if they track by ability. Their kids, particularly the boy kids, start to adopt this opinion, and white failure rates start rising.

So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.

As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.

I really can’t stress this point enough: charters have succeeded because of their ability to control students, not teachers. Comprehensive schools are bound by legal requirements and the constant threat of disparate impact lawsuits. It’s really that simple.

Charter schools don’t scale. What we should be doing, ideally, is “flipping” the populations. Charter schools can focus on one of three populations: low incentives, special ed, or non-native English speakers. Let the large comprehensives focus on the general population.

If comprehensive schools didn’t fear disparate impact lawsuits for expelling problem students and tracking; if free and appropriate education was dramatically limited in scope; if non-native English speakers were expected to learn English on their own, parents in “diverse” districts would become a whole lot less worried about their local schools and the charter movement would take a huge hit.

Wait, where was I? The CTU strike. But it’s related. The strike succeeded in large part because the reform Democrats were shocked to discover that the city population sided with the teachers. While I’m pleased at the outcome for the reasons outlined, costs are still a huge problem, particularly pensions. So what’s the answer?

Rick Hess compares the Chicago strike, brought about by Democrats, to the Wisconsin reforms (assuming they survive the courts). Democrats argue that reform can be achieved by working with unions; Governor Scott Walker just went after pension costs and won (again, so far).

I’m not sure I buy that distinction (although any article that calls Steven Brill a loser gets my vote). Rahm’s not a governor; he could only deal at the district level, and his ex-boss needs unions for his re-election bid. While he seemed to fold on everything, it may be that he had no options once the teachers walked out—again, because to reformers’ consternation, the parents and the public sided with the teachers. Walker had a legislature backing his play.

But I also wonder how much of the difference is due to the fact that Walker focused entirely on cost-cutting, without getting into accountability or merit. It’s one thing for the public to support teachers fighting for air-conditioning and against unfair evaluations, quite another to support their right to free guaranteed pensions on the taxpayers’ dime.

So here is my advice for Republicans:

  1. Focus on government worker pension pcosts. All government workers. No giving cops and firefighters a free ride. (The public supports this, too.)
  2. To the extent possible, scale back existing retirees’ benefits and pay, as opposed to focusing only on new and current workers.
  3. Instead of blaming teachers and unions, blame the frigging courts. They’re the huge obstacle to pension and union reform. Ask Arnold. Ask Scott Walker.
  4. Stop pushing charter schools and accountability. Start talking about the need to bring back tracking, and giving schools control over their environments. Talk about scaling back special education. Accept the Hispanic vote as a lost cause and start asking pointed questions about the cost of educating kids who can’t speak English.

As Rick Hess has noted elsewhere, parents see accountability as a problem for poor people, one they support rather like one supports Brussel sprouts—they taste like crap, but they’re supposed to be healthy. Neither political party is speaking to the hopes and fears of most parents.

So the CTU strike and its outcome, ideally, should resonate as a lasting symbol of the failure of education reform to win public opinion. This could be an opportunity for anyone willing to withstand disapproval by the elite machine that dictates acceptable opinions. That should be the job of Republicans in this environment. I’m afraid they’re not up to the task.