A conservative, pro-charter school nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., says in a new report that teachers in traditional public schools across the nation, particularly those who are unionized, are about three times more likely to miss 11 or more workdays annually than their colleagues in publicly funded charter schools — including in New Mexico.

But the report, based on data from the 2013-14 school year, had some good news for the state. Out of 35 states included in the study, New Mexico had the fourth-lowest rate in the nation that year for what the Thomas B. Fordham Institute called “chronically absent” public school teachers, at 22 percent. The rate at the state’s charter schools that year was 8 percent.

New Mexico officials say the state’s rate of chronic absenteeism, once among the highest in the nation, has fallen even further in more recent years, to 12 percent at traditional schools in 2016-17, according to the state Public Education Department, from 47 percent in 2011-12. The rate of chronic absenteeism in charter schools last year was about 7 percent, the department said.

The issue of teacher absences has ignited heated debates in the state, with the education department and governor touting a tough policy on sick leave for dramatically improving teacher attendance — saving school districts the expense of hiring substitutes and boosting student learning in a state that consistently ranks near the bottom in achievement measures. Lawmakers, educators and unions have argued that the policy, which penalizes teachers in their evaluations for using their sick time benefits, violates their contracts. Some have even called it inhumane.

The Fordham Institute report, expected to be released to the public Wednesday, says collective bargaining could be to blame for a high rate of teacher absenteeism across the U.S. Chronic absenteeism tends to be higher in districts and states where teachers unions have collective bargaining agreements in place, the report says. But it also points out that there is no proven link between missed days of work and unions.

Teachers union officials in New Mexico were quick to criticize the Fordham Institute’s report.

“This failed attempt to link collective bargaining and teacher absenteeism by an extremist group is junk science,” said Charles Goodmacher, a spokesman for the National Education Association of New Mexico, following the release of an early version of the report.

Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers of New Mexico, echoed those thoughts in a statement, calling the report “the latest attempt by the charter school industry to undermine traditional public schools.”

“All of this boils down to an attempt to discredit traditional public schools, public educators and the bargained contracts between educators, their local school boards and, in some cases, their state,” she said.

The Fordham Institute report, “Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools,” examines teacher absenteeism data from 35 states that have sizable numbers of charter schools, which are supported by taxes and overseen by a government body but operated by an independent outside board or organization.

David Griffith, the author of the report, admitted in an interview Tuesday that it is a “polarizing” document. “I’m losing a few Facebook friends,” he joked.

An estimated 28.3 percent of teachers in traditional public schools across the U.S. were considered chronically absent in 2013-14, the report says, meaning they missed 11 or more days of work within a 180 day school year. In comparison, the rate of chronically absent teachers in charter schools that year was 10.3 percent. Most charter schools teachers do not have collective bargaining, the report says.

Hawaii had the highest percentage of chronically absent teachers working in traditional schools, at 79 percent. Utah had the lowest rate, at around 17 percent.

“Though we cannot prove it,” the report says, “it’s impossible not to sense that the high chronic absenteeism rates for traditional public school teachers are linked to the generous leave policies and myriad job protections that are enshrined in state laws and local collective bargaining agreements.”

“Some of these contracts are excessive,” Griffith said Tuesday. Teacher contracts around the country allow an average of 12 to 13 days of paid leave for personal or sick time, he said.

While the same is true in New Mexico, the state Public Education Department only allows teachers to miss six days of work for sick time or personal leave before their absences affect their performance rating. That’s an increase from three days allowed before a teacher was penalized earlier this year, a policy that became an issue in the last legislative session.

A bipartisan bill with nearly unanimous support in both chambers of the Legislature would have allowed teachers to take 10 days of approved leave before being penalized. Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the measure, however, saying in her veto message, “I believe in the importance of having our full-time teachers, not short-term or long-term substitutes, in our classrooms with the students who depend on their expertise. … We need our teachers in our classrooms, and House Bill 241 would lead to more teacher absences.”

The state and districts saved $3.6 million in substitute teacher costs in 2015-16 alone because of improved teacher attendance, she added.

Martinez struck a compromise with a group of educators, allowing teachers six absences rather than three before they saw their performance rating decline.

Griffith said six days off per year for a teacher is “reasonable.”

He said his report did not include teachers who take time off for maternity leave because, by his own analysis of data, just 2.5 percent of teachers have children every year, a small number to consider in teacher absentee rates. The Fordham Institute is not the only organization concerned about the effects of teacher absenteeism.

A 2014 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality said students were getting shortchanged by the more than 1 in 10 teachers nationwide who were chronically absent in the 2012-13 school year. That report said 16 percent of teachers missed 18 days or more of school that year.

Griffith said state leaders should start looking at the issue and find ways to address it, particularly as they work on measures to cut down on student absenteeism and truancy.

“How can we possibly hold students accountable for their attendance if we cannot hold teachers accountable?” he asked. “How can we do one without the other?”

The state Public Education Department said that’s already happening in New Mexico. “This administration has been committed to ensuring our students have more time in the classroom with their qualified, licensed, professional teachers,” spokeswoman Lida Alikhani said in an email.

“… The major benefit is ultimately for our students,” she said, “with an additional 400,000 hours in instructional time with their teachers in their schools and classrooms each year. This is another reason why New Mexico continues to see increases in high school graduation, reading and math proficiency, students in A/B schools, and more Exemplary and Highly Effective teachers.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.