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South St. Louis County News

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Bill sponsored by Sen. Doug Beck requires vote for 4-day school week

The Independence School District prepares to ask voters to authorize its 4-day schedule after expanded teacher recruitment in first year of program
Sen. Doug Beck speaks during a Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing in January Photo by Annelise Hanshaw of the Missouri Independent.

The Independence School District recently completed its first school year on a four-day-a-week schedule — a change that made headlines and stirred state officials.

Now, with the passage of a new state law, the district will have to ask voters to keep the four-day week by July 1, 2026.

Is that enough time to test the concept of the abbreviated week? Dale Herl, the district’s superintendent, told The Independent that he is already seeing benefits just a year into the schedule.

“At one point, we were fully staffed with bus drivers in the school district,” he said. “We were also fully staffed with nurses, and neither one of those has happened during my 15 years within the school district (prior to the four-day week).”

Jon Turner, an associate professor at Missouri State University who researches the four-day school week, is studying the Independence School District. He backed up Herl’s claims about a full roster of bus drivers, adding that a wave of teacher applications was a result of the new schedule.

“It’s very clear that the four-day school week was a strong reason that Independence application rates were so much higher,” Turner said. “There is something so attractive about the four-day week within personal-life balance between certified educators that there’s no doubt that they’ve reaped the reward.”

Herl said the district’s hiring looks “very different.” More veteran teachers are applying to come to Independence, pulling in educators from affluent communities in the Kansas City area.

Turner, who serves on the board of the Missouri Association of Rural Education, was keenly interested if Independence was attracting teachers from rural communities. He only saw one applicant from a rural area.

Independence is the largest Missouri school district to adopt the four-day week. The shortened week has been part of rural Missouri schools since 2011, and around a third of the state’s schools have adopted the schedule — comprising 11% of Missouri’s K-12 students.

Herl chose the four-day week to help recruit teachers into the district’s open positions. Rural schools may have done so a decade earlier, but Herl said he sees the need growing now.

“I don’t think anyone anymore is immune to the teacher shortage,” he said. “You look at very large school districts across the United States, and they have hundreds and hundreds of teacher openings. We are in a crisis in the United States, but especially in Missouri regarding the teacher shortage.”

During the 2022-2023 school year, almost a quarter of new teachers were not properly certified or were substitute teachers, according to a State Board of Education report. The same report showed that nearly a quarter of student teachers serve as the teacher of record, or primary educator, in the classroom.

Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton, a former Affton school board member, sponsored the legislation on four-day school weeks that became part of the large education package signed into law earlier this year. He, too, said the core issue was teacher recruitment and retention, pointing out shallow pay for educators and a culture war surrounding teachers.

A four-day week isn’t the solution, he told The Independent.

“Nobody has given me a report that says a four-day school week increases kids’ education or our test scores or anything like that,” he said. “They’ve all said it’s either been a little bit less or almost not noticeable, but that isn’t what we should be striving for in education.”

The State Board of Education in February reviewed a report that concluded that the four-day schedule had “no statistically significant effect on either academic achievement or building growth.”

Academic achievement looks at one year of scores whereas building growth compares students scores over time.

Beck wanted to make his legislation effective statewide, meaning rural schools would have to take a vote for a four-day week. Instead, Beck’s proposal focused on schools in counties with a charter form of government or in cities with over 30,000 residents, knowing the inclusion of rural schools would draw the ire of some lawmakers and sabotage its chances of passage.

“The great part about this bill is that if it is a great thing for Independence, when they go for a vote, the people should vote for it,” he said. “It is democracy in action.”

Herl said he received positive feedback from a survey sent to parents about the four-day week. He believes voters would approve the four-day week if it was limited to district parents, but he worries that older voters without any kids attending school may come out against the new schedule.

Turner’s research bares that fear out.

“Looking at key stakeholders in the community and how they perceive the four-day week, the only group that we found that opposed the four day week were people that no longer have kids at school,” Turner said.

Herl has not thought about what he would do to retain teachers if he had to revert to a five-day week.

The bill that contained the four-day-school-week provisions also included a raise to the formula that funds public schools and other teacher-recruitment initiatives.

“All of the things contained within (the law) is based upon appropriations,” Herl said. “So just because it is in the bill does not mean it’s going to happen. The money has to be appropriated, and the state legislature has a very long history of not fully funding education. So my fear is if things get tight financially in Missouri, then education is just going to be the first thing to get cut.”

He said the incentive written for five-day weeks would give his teachers an extra $500 a year.

“The financial incentive is so small that it’s not going to keep a particular teacher in the profession,” he said.

As he prepares for a future vote, there are a few tweaks planned for the four-day program in Independence, Herl said. But overall, he is enthusiastic about the first year on the schedule.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and X.