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Schools across the U.S. are trying a 4-day week. Why? To retain teachers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are schools across the country that are dropping a day of school every week. Seven percent of school districts in the U.S. are now just four days long. In Missouri, it's 30% of districts. In Colorado, it's 67%. Sarah Gonzalez from our Planet Money podcast explains why.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: A few years ago, the Warren County R-III School District in Missouri kept losing teachers, like 50 teachers a year, to the next district over, which pays more.

GREGG KLINGINSMITH: We just couldn't compete.

GONZALEZ: So the superintendent, Gregg Klinginsmith, asked voters twice to raise taxes so they could increase teacher pay, which earned him a little reputation around town.

KLINGINSMITH: They liked to tease me as Dr. Cling-On-My-Money (ph), Cling-On-My-Money or something like that. It was just fun.

GONZALEZ: Voters rejected both tax increases.

KLINGINSMITH: One thing we value here is low taxes, and so you just, OK, look, what can we do?

GONZALEZ: Gregg decided he can cut out an entire day of school every week. He still pays teachers the same amount. They just get three-day weekends all the time now. And to understand how that free day off gets spent in most places, we went to a true expert in another district.

KENNEDY MONTGOMERY: Oh, hi. I'm Kennedy Montgomery, and I'm 9.

GONZALEZ: Kennedy is a big Texas Rangers fan, loves pink, soccer, and she is a proud, straight-A fourth grader.

KENNEDY: I never fall behind.

GONZALEZ: Ooh, they like that.

In China Spring, Texas, there is no school on Fridays anymore. Instead, she gets dropped off at a church, which she says is not fun.

KENNEDY: My favorite part is when we go to the library and watch a movie.

GONZALEZ: Oh, you get to watch a movie?

KENNEDY: Yes, every Friday.

GONZALEZ: Oh.

KENNEDY: We'll usually go in there twice. And sometimes we don't finish the movie, but last time we did watch two movies.

GONZALEZ: So it's, like, really, definitely not like school.

KENNEDY: No, it's way different.

GONZALEZ: It's daycare, and it costs money.

KENNEDY: It's hard financially because it's, like, $45 a Friday for me to go.

JESSICA MONTGOMERY: Yeah, $45 every Friday.

GONZALEZ: This is Kennedy's mom, Jessica Montgomery.

MONTGOMERY: It's just to keep your kid alive.

GONZALEZ: China Spring voters also wouldn't raise taxes to pay teachers more. And now the community basically gets, like, 20% less education for their community with their tax dollars. So the taxes are the same, everyone just gets less out of it now. If the tax hike had gone through, homeowners with, take a house worth $200,000, would have paid less than $60 extra a year. Kennedy's mom now pays $1,260 extra a year in this Friday child care. And this is kind of a tax.

PAUL THOMPSON: So this is definitely a tax on parents.

GONZALEZ: Paul Thompson is an economics professor at Oregon State University. And he says even though some smaller, more rural school districts moved to four-day school weeks years ago, Paul says it's spreading really fast now and, mostly based on anecdotal evidence from a neighboring district, that this totally helps teacher retention.

THOMPSON: They say applications are up, you know, four times what they normally are for teaching vacancies and using that as kind of suggestive evidence. Like, oh, this is great, you know, for our district.

GONZALEZ: But Paul says there is something happening already that is starting to undercut the four-day school week as a recruitment tool.

THOMPSON: You know, so we get these contagion effects.

GONZALEZ: Contagion - one district does it, then the neighboring district does it, too. There are entire clusters now in Texas, Missouri, Montana, where every district anywhere near you only offers four days of instruction. There is no other option. And when you get these cluster contagion effects, schools lose their competitive advantage.

THOMPSON: I mean, ultimately, if we only have four-day school weeks, teachers aren't choosing where to work based on the school schedule. They're choosing over what monetary benefit schools are offering.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So districts might be right back where they started - trying to appeal to teachers based on salary. It's just school is four days now instead of five. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News.

CHANG: And you can hear about how four-day school weeks affect student achievement and crime on NPR's Planet Money program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.