PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island teachers were absent from school more than their colleagues anywhere else in the country, according to a report by a national think tank.
The findings – released Monday by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. – examined data from the 2009-10 school year originally compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.
The study shows 50.2% of Rhode Island teachers were absent 10 days or more in 2009-10, compared with the national average of 36%. Educators in Utah had the fewest absences, with 20.9% of teachers out 10 days or more.
The author of the report said communities with a more diverse population reported a higher level of teacher absences than more homogenous places.
"With these and other findings, this report seeks to draw attention to the too long-neglected subject of teacher absence," wrote Raegan Miller of CAP. "The costs of teacher absence, both in financial and academic terms, can no longer be borne in silence."
Miller said teacher absences cost taxpayers $4 billion annually nationwide.
Robert Walsh, executive director of teachers union National Education Association Rhode Island, said the data may be misleading because the author did not use absentee rates from all the schools in Rhode Island.
"They used 208 schools; we have 344 schools in Rhode Island, so I'm a little suspicious there," Walsh said. "I'm not sure that all states are following the same standards of reporting so I don't know if we're getting apples to apples."
Walsh pointed out that absentee rates include everything from sick days to professional development days that are required by the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE).
"People are going to think [teachers] are abusing sick leave," Walsh said. "A significant contribution to this issue is [the fact the state is] making more efforts in training and development outside the classroom."
Reacting to the report, the acting Commissioner of RIDE said the vast majority of educators "are truly dedicated every day to the hard work of teaching their students and improving our schools."
"Obviously, unexpected teacher absences can disrupt instruction, and repeated teacher absences can set back the process of teaching and learning," said acting Commissioner David Abbott. "Repeated absences would be a factor noted during the process of teacher evaluations, which we are implementing this year in every public school in Rhode Island."
A Target 12 investigation last month revealed teachers called out sick an average of nine times during a 184-day school year, but overall absentee data showed teachers in some communities were absent as much as 19 days a year.
School officials point out maternity leave and other medical issues can cause a spike in the data.
- Watch Target 12 Investigation: Taking Attendance
- Use an interactive map of RI to track teacher absentee rates district by district
The CAP report suggests states should examine laws that govern employees' leave privileges.
"All employees should have access to a minimum standard of at least seven paid sick days per year," Miller wrote. "But teachers' leave provisions in some states may be too permissive, elevating rates of absence and incurring the financial liability of accumulated, unused leave."
Reacting to the Target 12 findings, Timothy Duffy – the head of the Rhode Island School Committee Association – said an absent teacher has an "adverse effect" on students, and that union contracts can have an impact on which districts show a high number of teachers out sick.
"It's the inner-city districts - the larger districts - where you see a larger percentage of absenteeism," Duffy said. "That may be due to the fact that the contract language is just loose enough to allow or afford teachers to take time when they may not be legitimately sick."
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