The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A teacher battling cancer must pay for her own substitute. In California, it’s the law.

Glen Park Elementary School in San Francisco, where a teacher is battling cancer while paying for her own substitute. (Screen shot/NBC Bay Area)

For decades, seriously ill teachers in California have been forced to pay the salaries of their substitute teachers while taking extended leave. But this week, outrage over the law emerged so loudly that the state legislature might as well have just passed it yesterday.

Like many terrible stories, this one came to light with a GoFundMe page.

Parents in the San Francisco Unified School District launched a fundraiser for a second-grade teacher on April 25 after discovering that she was not only battling breast cancer but was also having to pay for her own substitute. KQED reported about the teacher’s predicament and the fundraiser, shocking the local community and leading to nationwide scrutiny of the law.

“Parents were outraged and incredulous — like, this can’t be,” Amanda Fried, parent to a kindergartner and third-grader, told the Chronicle. “There must be some mistake.”

But Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, told The Washington Post that this has been the norm for sick teachers for years — symptomatic of a larger problem in California and beyond of underfunded education systems that end up burdening individual teachers even in their most critical time of need. He pointed to recent walkouts in Colorado and Oklahoma, where teachers protested low wages coupled with high health-care costs.

What’s happened to this teacher in San Francisco, Heins said, is just one example of the pressure facing so many educators.

“What it really is, is a reflection of how financially strapped the system has been for so long,” Heins said. “It is outrageous when you think about someone suffering from a catastrophic illness that they actually have to deal with these kinds of issues while already facing extra financial pressure.”

Parents, teachers and others in San Francisco raised more than $13,700 to help cover the teacher’s medical bills and pay for her substitute teacher. (The Post is not naming the teacher with cancer, as she has requested anonymity for privacy.)

Spokesmen for the San Francisco Unified School District did not immediately respond to request for comment about how much of the teacher’s salary is being deducted on a daily basis. But according to the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the union, the daily cost of a substitute teacher is between $174 and $240.

“She has nurtured our children and now it is time for us to take care of her,” the fundraiser’s organizers wrote on the GoFundMe page.

Heins said the law requiring that school districts deduct pay from teachers’ salaries while they are on paid sick leave was passed in the 1970s. Teachers in California do not pay into the state’s disability program and so can’t benefit from that, he said. The rules of extended sick leave, however, vary by school district.

In San Francisco, teachers are given 10 sick days per year, according to the collective bargaining agreement. Once they exhaust their sick days, including days that accumulated from past years, they are given as many as 100 days of extended sick leave. Teachers’ salaries are deducted to fund the sub’s paycheck during this time. Once the 100 days are up, teachers will go unpaid unless they are members of the Catastrophic Sick Leave Bank, in which teachers donate sick days to others who need them.

The same type of sick leave bank has been used in plenty of other states. In Alabama, for example, teachers banded together last month to donate their sick days to a high school social studies teacher after a plea from his wife. Their baby daughter was fighting cancer, and the teacher, David Green, had run out of sick days and could no longer be with her in the hospital.

“It’s one of those things you’re suffering through, but there’s a lot of compassion among our colleagues,” Heins said. “That’s why we do the catastrophic sick leave bank. We try to take care of our own.”

In California, the law requiring ill teachers to pay for their subs was even news to some lawmakers.

State Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat and chair of the California Senate Education Committee, told NBC Bay Area that she and other lawmakers are now reviewing the rule.

“I just learned of this issue, and it seems kind of outrageous,” she told the news station. “Candidly, I think the times have changed, and now it’s our job to change with the times.”

The GoFundMe organizers described the teacher as a “true professional” whose “dedication and love for her students can’t be understated.” Just a few days after her surgery, they said, she wrote 22 personalized notes to all the students in her class to thank them for their support, “telling them she missed them dearly and encouraging them to keep working hard.”

“Our school is pulling together to help her and to make her feel that she’s not alone,” Narciso Flores-Diaz, a parent, told NBC Bay Area.

Organizers of the fundraiser posted a message from the teacher as dozens of donations poured in, thanking the families. The fundraiser has since stopped accepting donations after exceeding its $10,000 goal.

“My family and I are truly grateful for this gift,” the second-grade teacher said. “My heart is lifted and it gives me so much strength to know that so many people care about me and my family.”

Correction: This article originally misstated who first reported on the teacher’s case.