Four day school week? In rural Missouri, more districts see it as a way to recruit teachers
The four-day school week is spreading rapidly throughout Missouri to make it easier to recruit and retain teachers, but some experts argue the policy won’t be enough to solve a teacher shortage problem.
There are 119 districts around the state that have transitioned to a four-day week since 2010. At least 18 more districts are planning to make the transition next year, adding up to 25% of all districts in Missouri.
The policy is meant to recruit people like Ellen Weimer, a high school math teacher at Keytesville School District, which transitioned to a four-day week in 2019. Weimer said the move was a key reason she came to the district last year. She said having an extra day to prepare curriculum and instruction is helpful to new teachers like herself.
“The extra day has been so beneficial for me to work on all the things that a seasoned teacher doesn’t have to do as much because they’re used to it,” Weimer said. “I can only see it being helpful for other teachers as well who are new and need that extra, extra day to prepare because that’s been what I do with the day off normally.”
Along with the supply of teachers decreasing, Katnick said the demand to hire new teachers is increasing because of high turnover rates. He said that Missouri’s rate of teacher retention after three years of employment is just over 60%. And when supply is down and demand is up, it creates a recipe for labor shortages.
A crucial reason teachers are leaving education is stagnating salaries. Public school teachers were paid 6% less than other college-educated workers in 1996, and the gap has grown to over 19% less than other college-educated workers in 2019, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.
Teacher compensation is a significant issue in Missouri. The state ranks second to last in the country in teachers’ average starting salary of $33,234 a year, according to a report from the National Education Association.
But the Missouri legislature is looking to solve this problem. In May, the General Assembly approved a bill to increase the minimum starting pay to $38,000.
The policy could especially benefit rural teachers because their salaries are often less than teachers in suburban and urban areas. Keytesville Superintendent Josh Shoemaker said the wage floor for teachers in his school district is $36,350.
“I’m sitting here talking about a base pay of $36,350, which is one of the best in the area, and let’s be honest, with a four year degree out of college that’s minimal pay,” Shoemaker said.
The state is slated to pay for 70% of the wage increase with local funds making up the rest. Jon Turner, a professor at Missouri State University, has been researching the four-day school week in Missouri for eight years. Turner said rural communities might struggle to raise the funds because they don’t have the business tax revenue that other areas in the state have.
“If you’re looking at Missouri, where we generate money from is property tax with things like businesses and your property like cars, combines and cows and the property that you own,” Turner said.
If some rural districts struggle to come up with the money, it could force them to push for school levies or consolidate and merge with other districts.
In recent years, teachers are also leaving education because of increased pressure and negative public sentiment. Teachers face scrutiny about their curriculum with concerns of the way history, race, sexual orientation and gender are taught in schools. Turner said public opinion of teachers shifted dramatically during the pandemic.
“When we first started the pandemic, people working in schools were all heroes, and boy did that change fast,” Turner said. “I mean, you went within six months, and now everybody that works in schools is some kind of communist conspiracy theorist that’s trying to steal your civil rights.”
While all school districts are having a hard time recruiting teachers, attracting them to rural areas poses additional challenges.
The wage difference isn’t the only factor hurting rural schools’ retention efforts. Keytesville Superintendent Josh Shoemaker said the two biggest teacher recruitment challenges in his district are a lack of employment opportunities for the teacher’s spouse and lack of housing.
Starting in the late 1990s, the country has pivoted to an economy that focuses more on providing services to customers rather than physical goods. This transition has harmed rural economies that were founded on manufacturing and agriculture.
Sarah Low is a professor of regional economics at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources. Low’s research focuses on strategies to develop rural economies. Low said the number of businesses in rural Missouri have shrunk because of significant population declines in rural areas.
When there are fewer businesses in rural areas, it makes it harder to find a job if you’re the spouse of a teacher.
Low also said while rural areas often provide enough housing to meet demand, the quality of housing isn’t high enough to attract white-collar professionals.
“The rural housing stock tends to be 100-year-old houses,” Low said. “They don’t have closets, they don’t have air conditioning, and they most certainly don’t have granite countertops because they would cost more than the house and the land itself.”
Missouri’s rural communities also often don’t have the gathering places and opportunities for social interaction compared to suburban and urban areas.
Missouri Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, worked in rural Missouri education as a principal and superintendent of schools in Ava and West Plains. She said it is difficult to attract young teachers because rural towns lack the social opportunities urban areas provide.
“You think about the age group of the folks who are going into the profession, they’re 22-, 23-years-old,” Eslinger said. “The idea of living down in a small town with really not much socialization kinds of things, it’s tough to get them down there in the first place.”
This story was originally published in the Missouri Business Alert.