Under normal circumstances, most teachers are in school most of the time. In NCTQ's analysis of pre-pandemic data from some of the nation's largest school districts, we found an average teacher attendance rate of 95%. But as the last few years have made abundantly clear, teachers, like all workers, need to be able to take time off for a host of reasons—from personal illness to caring for a family member to bereavement. When a teacher needs to take time off, what paid leave is available to them?
In this District Trendline, we dig into data from the NCTQ Teacher Contract Database to see how much paid leave teachers get, how leave accumulates over time, what types of paid leave are available, and what incentives are available for teachers who do not use all their available leave.
How much general paid leave—including sick and personal leave—is available to teachers?
Most states (36) have laws on the minimum number of leave days for public employees and/or teachers, with the most common state policy ensuring at least 10 paid sick days. However, all of the 148 large districts that NCTQ tracks enumerate leave policies for teachers—and all of them start with at least eight days.727
Note: In 41% of districts, personal days are taken from available sick leave.
The average amount of general paid sick and personal leave available to teachers in large districts is 13.5 days (which hasn't changed in over a decade), although there is significant variation among districts. At the low end, Lewisville Independent School District (TX) provides only eight days of paid leave,728 while teachers can have up to 25 days in Champlain Valley School District (VT) and Toledo Public Schools (OH).
A caveat here is that in some districts (23, or 16% of our sample), more experienced teachers get more days of paid leave. In the five North Carolina school districts in our sample, teachers with fewer than six years of experience get two personal days compared to 12 personal days for teachers with more than 20 years of experience (however, days are only fully paid if taken on a day without students; otherwise, the cost of a substitute teacher is subtracted729).
Bucking that trend are Indianapolis Public Schools (IN) and Jackson Public Schools (MS), two districts that give more sick leave to early career teachers than to veterans (perhaps a nod to the common perception that new teachers are getting used to all those school germs!). First-year teachers in Indianapolis get about two additional days of sick leave compared to other teachers. Jackson gives all teachers 12 days of leave, but the proportion that can be used for sick and personal days changes depending on a teacher's tenure: Within the first three years, a teacher has 10 sick days and two personal days, but by year 16, it's 5.5 sick days and 6.5 personal days.
Sixty-one districts (41% of the sample) have an allotment of leave days that can all be used as sick leave; however, only some of those can be used as personal leave. Because the same days can count as either sick or personal leave in many districts, the average number of sick days available to teachers (10.8) plus the average number of personal days (4.4) is greater than the average total leave. For example, in Wichita Public Schools (KS), all teachers get 12 days of leave. All 12 days can be used as sick leave, which would mean the teacher has no personal days available, or three to five days (depending on a teacher's years of experience) can be used as personal leave each year.
Jordan School District (UT) is one district that switched in 2020 to a general bank of leave days (12-15 days, depending on years of experience) that can be used as either sick or personal leave, with no restrictions. But this is rare among large school districts, with only nine having such a policy. The most common district policy is (and has long been730) 10 paid sick days and two to three paid personal days.
How much paid leave can teachers accumulate year over year?
Every one of the 148 large districts NCTQ tracks allows teachers to carry over at least some sick leave from year to year. In fact, most large districts (98, or 66% of our sample) do not set a maximum number of sick days a teacher can accumulate. These policies were important during the pandemic, when so many teachers needed to use more sick days than usual, often going into their bank of stored days. For the districts that do have a cap on accumulated sick leave, the average is 174 days.
It is less common for districts to allow teachers to accumulate personal leave. A little more than half of districts (84, or 57%) allow unused personal leave to carry over from one year to the next. And in many (34, or 40%) of these districts, the unused personal leave converts to sick leave for carry-over.
When it comes time for a teacher to retire, most districts (115, or 78% of our sample) provide a payout for any unused, accumulated sick leave. Sixty-two districts (42%) also specify that unused personal days can be cashed out at retirement, though in most of these cases, the unused personal leave has been converted to sick leave.
What other types of paid leave are available to teachers?
Most teacher absences are due to personal illness. In fact, NCTQ's pre-pandemic data found that only 7% of teacher absences were recorded as something other than sick, personal, or professional leave. Within that small proportion, however, is a lot of variety, and many large districts have policies that seek to clarify what is allowed as paid leave.
Jury duty or required court appearances is the most common of these other categories that large districts enumerate, with 140 districts (95% of the sample) specifying it as paid leave. Similarly, most districts (119 or 80%) allow teachers to take paid leave for military and/or reserve service.
Perhaps surprisingly, two common reasons a teacher may need to take time off—parental leave and bereavement—are less commonly specified in district policies. Only 27 (18%) of large districts provide paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and just over half of districts (79 or 53%) have a policy for paid bereavement leave.731 The number of paid leave days for bereavement varies within nearly all districts based on a teacher's relationship to the deceased, with districts providing an average of 4.8 days of paid leave for bereavement of an immediate family member, but only one to two days for other family or close friends.
Nearly as common as bereavement leave is paid leave for assault or injury on the job, and some districts (31 or 21% of the sample) have specific paid leave available for emergency closures, communicable disease, or quarantine—far fewer than might be expected three years after pandemic shutdowns left schools and teachers scrambling to figure out how to manage absences due to COVID.
What incentives or benefits are available to teachers who have good attendance?
Student learning depends upon teachers being in classrooms, so to encourage teachers to take as little leave as they can, a number of districts (39 or 26% of the sample) incentivize good attendance732 in some way. Nine districts give teachers with excellent attendance additional days of leave for the next school year, and 29 districts provide financial incentives, essentially allowing teachers to cash in unused leave at the end of the year, usually for the equivalent of the daily rate of a substitute teacher.
There are some exceptions where a few districts give teachers a bonus for good attendance but still allow them to accumulate the leave they did not use. Los Angeles Unified School District (CA) gives teachers bonuses of up to $1,500 for good attendance, while in Bridgeport Public Schools (CT) teachers can earn up to $2,250 a year. St. Paul Public Schools (MN) is more modest, providing up to $600 in credits that can be used in the school cafeteria. Providence Public School District (RI) provides up to five days of additional pay, and Pittsburgh Public Schools (PA) enters teachers with good attendance into a drawing for $500 each semester.
Whether they can earn a bonus or not, teachers know that they make the biggest impact on students when they are present in school. But being a teacher should not mean never being able to take a day off without losing pay. As education policymakers and advocates work to strengthen the profession, it is important to consider paid leave policies and how to best leverage them to attract, support, and retain effective teachers.