Law & Courts

Sick Teachers Paying for Substitutes: Where and Why It’s Happening

By Madeline Will — May 17, 2019 7 min read
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In San Francisco, an elementary teacher was informed that, due to state law, she would have to pay the cost of a substitute while she was out of the classroom on extended sick leave for breast cancer treatment.

The teacher’s story made national headlines after parents at her school launched an online crowdfunding campaign to cover her costs. People were outraged. California lawmakers pledged to revisit the state law, with the state senator who chairs the education committee telling KQED that legislators are “going to try and fix it for future teachers.”

Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, weighed in on the story, calling it a symbol of a “fundamentally broken system.”

But this law has been in place since 1976, and the story is not an isolated incident. In California, Oklahoma, and a handful of school districts elsewhere, teachers who have taken an extended medical leave have been quietly paying the cost of their substitutes for years, if not decades.

Over the past year, teachers across the country have protested low wages and inadequate classroom and school resources, but policies regarding sick leave were not a rallying cry among teachers, and they haven’t been at the top of teachers’ unions’ agendas.

So what’s really going on here, and why isn’t this a bigger issue? Here’s what you need to know.

How much sick leave do teachers generally get?

On average, teachers receive about a dozen sick and personal days a year. Typically, teachers are able to roll over their sick days from year to year with no cap.

Which states and districts have policies that require teachers to pay for subs during extended leave?

In California, teachers receive 10 days of regular sick leave a year, and unused sick days carry over year after year. Once their sick leave is exhausted, teachers are eligible for 100 days of extended sick leave, but the cost of a substitute for those days is deducted from a teacher’s paycheck. In the San Francisco Unified district, for example, the cost of a substitute can be up to $240 a day.

In Oklahoma, state law says that educators get 10 days of sick leave annually, which roll over each year. If a teacher depletes his or her store of sick leave, then the state will allow an additional 20 sick days, minus the cost of a substitute.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based think tank, has tracked teacher-leave policies in 148 districts across the country, including the 100 largest and the largest district in each state. At least two large school districts outside of Oklahoma and California have similar policies for extended sick leave: Pasedena, Texas, and Davis, Utah.

Other places require teachers to pay for the cost of their substitutes when using different types of leave. For example, North Carolina law gives teachers two days of personal leave per year. But if teachers take a personal day when students are in class—instead of on teacher work days—the district will dock the cost of the substitute from the teacher’s salary.

“I do feel like it’s unfair,” said Dov Rosenberg, an instructional technology facilitator at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham, N.C. “It seems like that’s something the school system should pay for. We’re professionals as teachers, and sometimes we have to take days where we can’t be in the classroom.”

In NCTQ’s database, 22 districts have some form of leave where teachers are paid their salary minus the cost of the substitute, although about half of those are in California, Oklahoma, or North Carolina.

What is the rationale for teachers paying the cost of their substitutes?

It’s important to note that extended medical leave isn’t used by most teachers. In fact, a human resources representative in the Davis district could only recall two times in 20 years when a teacher had to pay the cost of the substitute.

But when a teacher does need to take an extended medical leave, it’s expensive for the school district to pay for both the cost of the substitute and the teacher’s regular salary. In California, public school teachers don’t pay into the state disability insurance program, so they can’t draw benefits from it.

And Carolina Villaseca, a parent who sits on the school site council of Pioneer Elementary School in Brentwood, Calf., said schools across the state are strapped for cash.

“Once you’ve exhausted all your substitute days and you take a look at your budget, there’s nothing left for something as unfortunate as a teacher having cancer and [having to go through] chemo,” she said. “It’s not like the principal or the superintendent doesn’t want to fund [the extended sick leave], it’s that there is no money left to fund.”

Which teachers are most affected by these kinds of policies?

These policies affect teachers who have (or who have a family member with) a serious illness and need to be out for extended treatment—like for cancer.

However, it wouldn’t affect all teachers equally. Since teachers can roll over their sick days from year to year, many veteran teachers have large amounts of leave stored. Early-career teachers would be more likely to feel the impact of this policy.

“If you’re a new teacher, two bouts of strep and the flu will take you over 10 days,” said Alicia Priest, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

Also, she said, this would be an issue for teachers who need to take extra parental leave with a new baby for medical reasons. (Across the country, teachers rarely receive paid parental leave.)

Are there ways teachers can get around having to pay for the subs?

California Teachers Association President Eric Heins and Oklahoma’s Priest said teachers in their states have typically been able to find local workarounds to these types of laws. For example, a local teachers’ union might have bargained for additional sick days.

Also, many districts either have a catastrophic sick leave bank set up, where teachers can draw from a pool of donated sick days, or will allow teachers to donate sick days directly to someone in need. However, California law says that teachers have to use up the 100 days of extended sick leave, minus the cost of the substitute, before they can accept donated, fully paid sick days.

While it’s difficult to track how many districts have sick leave banks, they’re relatively common, said Kency Nittler, the director of teacher policy at NCTQ.

Just in the last few months, two stories of sick-day donations went viral: In Florida, teachers rallied around a colleague with Stage III colon cancer who ran out of sick days, and in Alabama, a teacher whose 1-year-old daughter is battling leukemia ran out of paid time off to be with her, and appealed to his coworkers for help.

Those stories are often framed as heartwarming tales, but some observers are troubled by the thought of individual teachers stepping in to solve a systemic issue.

“I see a story like that, and I see a near-miss and wonder how many stories there are of teachers who worked in a district and there wasn’t that policy,” said Peter Greene, a retired teacher and education blogger.

It’s unfair, he said, that teachers have to “throw [themselves] at the mercy” of their coworkers.

Even so, Keri Treadway, a teacher at William Fox Elementary School in Richmond, Va., recently donated sick days to her colleague whose daughter has cancer. (Her district doesn’t have a sick leave bank, but teachers can donate extra days directly to a colleague in need.)

“It’s a stand in solidarity,” she said. “[Teachers are] a true family, and you do what you can to support your family. God forbid you find yourself in that situation—you’d hope that your colleagues would wrap their arms around you.”

What do the unions say about these policies?

Before the story of the San Francisco teacher made national headlines, these policies of teachers paying for their substitutes were not a huge talking point for teachers’ unions.

“The problem is, yes, it is an outrage, but it’s one of many ways that teachers are disrespected in the profession,” Heins said. “This is symptomatic of ... a chronically underfunded school system.”

He expressed some concern about changing the law without giving more money to school districts. California spends far less per student than the national average—$9,400 per pupil, as opposed to the national average of $12,500, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis that’s adjusted for regional cost variations.

“Eliminating the law in isolation would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, and what we really need to do is focus on funding the system appropriately and adequately,” Heins said.

And Priest said she’d need to do more research before suggesting Oklahoma’s policy needs to be changed. There are other priorities the union is working on: Oklahoma teachers staged a nine-day walkout last spring over low wages and cuts to school funding, and teachers are still fighting for the legislature to put more money into public education.

“I think that this is a part of a bigger conversation about health-care benefits and making sure that we are doing the right thing for our education employees when it comes to being able to afford to go to a doctor in the beginning and not waiting,” Priest said.

And after all, given that this type of leave is for extreme cases and there are some workarounds, these policies affect just a small subset of their members.

“Your average teacher isn’t going to experience this problem,” Nittler said.

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