Murphy Administration and NJEA Celebrate Expansions of Teacher Sick LeaveJuly 7, 2023
New Camden Program That Turns Classroom Aides into Teachers Starts off SmartlyJuly 7, 2023
On June 30th the New Jersey Legislature overwhelmingly passed Bill 5060 which expands school employees’ use of sick days. Under the old rules, staff members had to actually be sick. Now they can use their sick days, which accrue at 10 days per year, for family members’ illnesses, bereavement, parent-teacher conferences, etc.. NJEA President Sean Spiller, head of the NJ’s teacher union which had lobbied heavily for the bill, thanked Gov. Phil Murphy “for this important step that demonstrates respect for our educators.”
Good idea, right? After all, in our new post-COVID world, many employees, at least those not in service industries, have more flexibility than they’ve ever had to work from home and hold meetings on Zoom.
Yet there are two problems with the new bill which Murphy quickly signed into law: first, it’s bad for student learning, especially given the crisis of lost learning children have endured. Second, buried at the bottom of the bill is statement is this warning: “Fiscal information for this bill is currently unavailable.”
Marc Gaswirth sums up the “political backdrop” of the new rules:
Since existing law also allows school employees to accumulate unused sick days without limit, this proposal would enable individuals to take more time off with pay, generating high levels of staff absenteeism and thus reducing student-teacher contact time. School districts will have to budget for higher substitute costs. The research also tells us that successful student-teacher interaction only exists when teachers are present on a regular and consistent basis, which leads to greater student achievement.
In addition, says Gaswirth, while one of the pleas made by NJEA was the “teacher shortage,” this new law only benefits older employees who have accumulated sometimes as much as 180 sick days, not new ones who start with a zero balance. For that older teacher, a school district might be on the hook for a full year of salary and benefits—easily more than $100K–plus a new teacher to replace the one caring for a sick relative, which could be another $75K. And that’s just for one teacher.
No school board can budget for that.
Others have weighed in. Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents nearly 100 districts in New Jersey, told the Star-Ledger that broadly expanded access to sick days could hurt instruction and inflate personnel costs for districts: “There’s great humanity in that, but there is also the unintended consequence. So it’s balancing out our common humanity with the realities of public education.”
While legislators like Senator Vin Gopal and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt lauded the bill for its “humanity,” the New Jersey School Board Association, which opposed the bill, warned that there aren’t enough substitute teachers to go around to fill in for long-term and/or frequent absences, concluding “allowing additional absences could harm students.”
Gaswirth muses, “How disappointing that these legislators see school employees’ interests closely align with students’ interests when the opposite may be the case. How sad it is that we have allowed unions and their political patrons to convince us that the former proposition is true while the latter is staring us in the face.”
How could Gov. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, sign a bill that when “fiscal information for this bill is currently unavailable” but outcomes are predictably onerous for school budgets? It’s a mystery.