(The Center Square) – When the Independence School District board voted this week to become the first suburban district in the state to adopt a four-day week, it prompted numerous questions as the western Missouri district joined approximately 150 other schools in the practice.
Rural Missouri school districts began changing to four-day weeks after a 2009 law stated a school term must be at least 1,044 hours of instruction without a minimum requirement of days. MOST Policy Initiative research found teacher recruitment increased by 4% in Missouri’s rural schools adopting the four-day week, compared to rural schools with the standard five-day week.
“People always say this is to save money,” Jon Turner, an associate professor in counseling, leadership and special education at Missouri State University, said in an interview with The Center Square. “Many districts don’t save any money. If they do, it’s because of things like diesel fuel, which can be a big expense. This is about struggling to get teachers to come to a small rural school district and stay. But, with Independence, that changes everything.”
When the number of districts adopting the Tuesday through Friday week reached 61 in 2019, Turner decided to visit each one.
He discovered when free childcare was provided by the school district on Mondays, most families stopped using it as they eventually found other alternatives. He also found school districts don’t reduce costs when changing to four days. However, rural districts are attempting to balance budgets as property tax revenue declines in small towns.
“Those smallest rural school districts are at an economic disadvantage because a large portion of their operating revenue comes from property taxes,” Turner said. “If you drive into a community and see a Walmart, a McDonald’s and a grocery store, those businesses are paying property taxes. Go to a community where that’s hollowed out, nothing there – no manufacturing or businesses generating revenue – the tax base is dwindling.”
Switching to a four-day week helps small rural school districts compete with larger suburban districts located within commuting distance. Turner said starting teacher salaries are comparable in both districts, but the larger suburban districts can pay more for experienced teachers with master’s degrees.
“I think this is the hidden story,” Turner said. “Small, rural districts can’t compete on the salary scale, especially with mid- to late-career teachers. What other options do they have? That’s where you get the four-day week.”
With 28% of Missouri’s 518 school districts on a four-day week, it comprises only 8% of students, Turner said. The majority of districts on a four-day week have less than 500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and only two have more than 3,000 students.
The Independence School District, with 14,000 students and 1,300 certified staff, is an outlier, Turner said. Independence Superintendent Dale Herl said teacher recruitment and retention was the main reason for changing. In a series of videos explaining the change, Herl said 45% of Missouri public school teachers leave the profession after three years and 55% after five years.
“If there are some things that we can do to help retain quality staff both in our teacher ranks as well as classified, we certainly want to look at that,” Herl said.
Turner said only one Missouri district returned to a five-day week after making the change as districts are desperate to attract teachers.
“When you have that many leaving and fewer going into teaching as a career, it shows you this is a train wreck,” Turner said. “It’s just one thing after another hitting the schools all the time. Some people call the four-day week a Band-Aid, some call it a tourniquet. But it’s not a long-term solution.”