JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Nearly a quarter of all Missouri’s school districts are only in session four days a week this year. Legislation moving forward in Jefferson City could require schools to go back to five days a week, but some districts would be exempt.

The law allowing four-day weeks was passed more than a decade to help schools save money after the recession but now it’s being used as a perk to hire and retain teachers. 

This week, the Missouri Senate passed a bill allowing home school students to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities in the local school district. Within that legislation, Democratic Senator Doug Beck, from Affton, added a provision, requiring five-day school weeks, unless approved by a vote of the people. 

“I think the more contact students have with their teachers, like 174 days compared to 142 days, is critical to learning,” Beck said Thursday after the vote. “Every four days you go to school, you have three days off and we see kids when they are off for days, you have a loss of learning and then you have to come back and learn things all over again.”

Missouri is suffering a large shortage of educators. This year, more than 140 school districts are utilizing a shortened week, most in rural areas. That’s an increase of more than 100 schools in just four years. 

“In my mind, to cut your school week down a day is certainly not a way to achieve higher results,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said.

Lawmakers approved four-day weeks in the late 2000s to help schools save money during hard times. Those four-day weeks currently affect less than 10% of the state’s students. 

If a school district, located in a county with more than 30,000 people, wants to implement a four-day week, under Beck’s amendment, found on Senate Bill 411, the district must ask voters before adopting the shortened week. 

“I think it’s critical we get back to a five-day week,” Beck said. Our neighbors in Kansas have 185 school days scheduled a year and we have 174 if you’re going five days and 142 if you’re going four days. I wish I could go statewide for this, but I had pushback from some Republican senators.”

O’Laughlin said she was not one of the Republican senators who pushed Beck back on his amendment. 

“Some of the other rural senators have heard from their schools they really like four-day weeks,” O’Laughlin said. “I don’t think you can simultaneously say school is very important to some children, we have a lot of disadvantage children that depend on school for a lot of things, but then in the same next breath say, we’re going to cut down a day. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Because Missouri is a local control state, districts don’t have to check with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) before moving to a shortened week. It also means that lawmakers are the only ones who can change state law and do away with four-day weeks. 

DESE said that Missouri students are required to participate in at least 1,044 hours of instruction during a school year. In order to hit that requirement, many districts that have moved to four-day weeks extend their school days. 

Back in October, Independence School Board, just outside of Kansas City, voted to implement a four-day week for the upcoming school year. With nearly 14,000 students, it’s the largest district so far to make the switch. 

“There is no scenario that Independence can make a claim that they are doing it for any other reason than fiscal reasons and they have plenty of money,” Senate President Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said. “I would say that I think the intentions and the motivation of a small rural district going to four days and the intentions and motivation of Independence are very, very different.”

DESE estimates there are roughly 3,000 positions in Missouri schools that are either vacant or filled by someone not qualified this school year. 

The bill now heads to the House with four weeks left in session, where Republican leadership seems on board. 

“Shortening school weeks does not solve the problem that we are facing in this country of a workers shortage or poverty,” House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, said. “Our children need to be prepared for a challenging future. I personally stand on the fact that children should be in school five days a week.”

While House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, agrees with the idea of five-day school weeks, she isn’t a fan of how the Senate went about it. 

“Making something different for the cities than the rural areas that Republicans represent,” Quade said. “I just think it’s always fascinating that what we come back to in my opinion is overreach of local control when it only pertains to people that aren’t on the Republican side.”

If the House approves the bill and it’s signed by the governor, it would go into law later this year, meaning next year’s school calendar would not be affected. Districts would be required to put the question to the vote of the people by July 2024 in order to continue with the four-day week. 

According to the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission who released its report to the Board of Education in the fall, about 8,000 teachers make below $38,000. Under current stat law, minimum wage for teachers is $25,000, a statute that hasn’t been changed in years. Missouri has one of the lowest starting teacher wages in the country. Last year, lawmakers approved a grant, requiring the districts to pay 30% and the state pay the remaining to bring teachers up to $38,000. The governor has asked for that grant to be funded again this year. 

You can find the list of districts that have four-day weeks on DESE’s website