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Missouri lawmakers want voters to decide whether schools can shift to four-day weeks

Kansas City Star
Large Missouri school districts that want to shift to a four-day school week amid a teacher shortage would first have to get approval from voters under a sweeping education package passed by the Missouri Senate last week.

The legislation, which now heads to the House, would directly affect the Independence School District. The district last year became the largest school system in the state to try a four-day week in an attempt to attract teachers.

It would require school districts in Jackson, St. Louis, Jefferson and St. Charles counties, or districts that serve more than 30,000 residents, to receive approval from a majority of voters in the district by 2026 in order to keep a four-day week or to begin offering it.

School board members under current state law can decide whether a district shifts to a four-day week. The proposed legislation would not affect smaller districts in more rural parts of the state.

Dale Herl, the superintendent for Independence schools, was critical of the legislation in an interview with The Star this week. Four-day school weeks were never a problem until his district made the switch, he said.

“It seems like large school districts are very much being singled out,” Herl said. “How is the fact that large school districts want to do this as a way to attract and retain employees any different than a district that’s in a community with under 30,000?”

The provision was included in a massive 167-page education bill that senators passed on a 19 to 10 vote last week. If approved by the House, it would head to Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.

The legislation would also allow charter schools to operate in Boone County, raise the starting salary for teachers to $40,000 and would expand a tax-credit-funded scholarship program for students to attend private or charter schools.

The core of the Republican-led bill, filed by Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, was widely viewed as a win for school choice advocates, who have for years pushed for greater access to non-traditional K-12 education such as private and religious schools. Senate Democrats voted against the larger package, but were able to negotiate several provisions, including the rules surrounding four-day weeks.

Sen. Doug Beck, a St. Louis Democrat, added the language regarding four-day school weeks. He said on Wednesday that the reduced schedule posed a handful of challenges for school-age children and parents.

He pointed to increased childcare costs for parents and stagnant academic performance. Beck said Wednesday that he hadn’t seen a single test that suggested that four-day weeks improved student performance.

“They said they’ve dropped a little bit or maybe stayed the same,” he said. “But I guess my question is, is that what we’re looking for? Are we shooting for just staying the same?”

Beck added that he would have preferred to require all school districts to put four-day school weeks on the ballot. However, he pushed back on the argument that the bill unfairly targeted Independence schools.

The bill also includes incentives for school districts that stick with five-day school weeks: an increase in funding equal to 2% of the state aid that the district received the year prior. The bill requires that funding bump to go towards teacher salaries.

But Herl said Independence won’t take the money. He said the district already increased its levy to boost salaries and that retaining staff is about more than that.

“When you look at what’s going on with teacher retention, this boils down to far more than a situation about salary,” he said. “It’s about work life balance … and this four-day school week allows us to address that.”

State money to private schools

At the heart of the bill is an expansion of the Missouri Empowerment Scholarships, or MOScholars, program. The tax-credit funded program provides qualified K-12 students and their families with funding to attend a private or charter school.

The legislation raises the funding cap — or the total amount of tax-credit eligible donations it can accept — for MOScholars from $25 million to $75 million. Previously, the funding cap had been allowed to grow with inflation, reaching a little over $27.5 million this year.

Under the proposal, that amount will have to grow with the public school funding formula — a compromise Senate Democrats said would prevent public schools from being underfunded.

Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, said last week that the state hadn’t yet hit that funding cap.

But Koenig, who is running for state treasurer, pointed to recent growth in donations as reason to raise the cap now. In 2022, the program raised around $9 million in donations and last year, it raised around $17 million.

The bill would also expand the number of students or families who would be eligible for the program. Currently, a family of four would have to make $110,000 or less per year to qualify. The legislation would raise that to a little under $167,000.

The sweeping bill would also allow new charter schools to be established in Boone County. Charter schools are currently only allowed to operate in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Some Republicans have pushed to allow charter schools in St. Charles and St. Louis County as well, but Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, said last week that adding those counties to this bill might have drummed up too much opposition to the package as a whole.

Concern over costs

In a rare consensus, Senate Republicans and Democrats have both disputed the bill’s fiscal note, which was prepared by nonpartisan staff and estimates how much the legislation would cost state and local governments.

Rowden, Koenig and Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, estimated that the fiscal impact of the bill on state general revenue funds would be closer to $400 to $450 million once fully implemented. The fiscal note prepared by nonpartisan staff, however, states the figure could exceed $235 million.

Koenig said that the fiscal note had several incorrect assumptions, which may have impacted the accuracy of the final calculation. He pointed to the refundability of MOScholars tax credits as an example.

“I would have liked it to be refundable, but it’s not,” Koenig said.

Rizzo said he didn’t think that Republicans had tried to sway nonpartisan staff, but that he wanted to see more accurate fiscal notes in the future.

“The issue is that if we’re able to put the pieces of the puzzle together to get a good fiscal note, why are we not getting that?” Rizzo said during a Senate press conference last Thursday.

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