Turning Over the Teacher Turnover Question

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More teachers leave charters than leave district-run schools – a familiar phenomenon that’s currently drawing a flurry of research scrutiny. The sector usually contends that turnover is to be expected in start-ups, and that the numbers are really driven by terminations of ineffective teachers. Not so fast, said a recent DOE study, blogged by colleague Anna Nicotera: salary and working conditions seem to play a big role too.

A couple of new studies may further reframe the discussion. The National Charter School Research Project’s new look at charter vs. district teacher mobility in Wisconsin finds that “charter” per se may have little to do with whether teachers leave or stay. Younger teachers tend to move more whether in charters or traditional schools, and so do those who teach in disadvantaged areas, where most charters are located. In fact, urban charters actually retain teachers somewhat better than their district-school counterparts. (A caveat here: WI may not be the ideal state for this comparison, since teachers in so many charters stay in the district’s union contracts – a point noted by the researchers.)

But maybe the whole debate is upside-down. Maybe the problem is not too many charter school teachers moving, but too few teachers leaving district-run schools.

As a new Education Sector report notes, the vast majority of teachers in traditional district schools are tightly tethered to defined-benefit pension systems of the sort rarely found in the private workforce anymore. They lose out if they sever that connection, whether it’s to move to another kind of school or to switch careers altogether.

Ed Sector cites a 2008 survey in which nearly four out of five teachers agreed that ‘too many veteran teachers who are burned out stay because they do not want to walk away from the benefits and service time they have accrued.’ (Remember that one next time you hear the charge of “too many young, inexperienced teachers in charter schools.”)

Most of our economy now functions on the assumption of worker mobility. Eighty percent of pensions are now portable plans such as 401Ks and 403Bs; just 7.2 percent of private-sector workers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements; and COBRA provides a long off-ramp for health coverage when employment ends. Public charter schools are clearly riding this wave, reflecting the realities of the current and future workforce more closely than their counterparts in public school districts.

The Alliance’s Model State Charter Law gives its highest rating in this area to just 11 states that provide access to state-run employee retirement systems, but do not force charter schools to participate. It’s a macro version of the balancing act required in today’s best-run charters, who are offering compensation and benefit packages that permit – but do not require – making a career of it.