After emotional pleas from classroom teachers, the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday approved putting $25 million toward boosting the pay of teachers in hard-to-staff positions and adjusting the salary schedule to reward experience.
The educators’ voices were bolstered by a new study on teacher compensation released late Tuesday that showed salaries for teachers in Hawaii’s public schools lag far behind comparable districts.
“I have deep roots in my community and I am proud to teach in the community in which I live,” said Tiffany Eason, who teaches fourth grade at Waialua Elementary, which has won two National Blue Ribbons in the past 10 years.
“I did not ever think I would be practically living from paycheck to paycheck, after 25 years of service,” she said. “After giving more than half my life to teaching, I am now looking at other employment options in order to meet my family’s financial needs.”
Hawaii’s high cost of living and teacher salaries that don’t adequately value experience were identified as the top hurdles to finding and keeping teachers here, in the independent study commissioned by the Department of Education and produced by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.
Most teachers were still on the job when the hearing convened before 3 p.m., but Senate Education Chairwoman Michelle Kidani said her committee had received about 300 pieces of testimony on SB 2488. Several teachers took time off to appear in person.
Dana Shishido Kobayashi, who teaches third grade at Wheeler Elementary, vividly illustrated how hard it was to raise a family on a teacher’s salary. She recalled years ago when her daughter was a cheerleader at Mililani High School and she wanted to compete nationally with the team.
“I didn’t want to tell my daughter that I couldn’t afford to send her,” Kobayashi said, choking up. “I sold my jewelry so I could send her to this competition.”
At that point, Sen. Kurt Fevella, (R-Ewa Beach- Iroquois Point), took off his glasses and wiped away tears. As a former school custodian, he said later he was glad to help move the bill forward.
The Mililani cheerleading team ended up winning, Kobayashi said, but her daughter didn’t pursue teaching because she saw how hard her mother worked and the small compensation she got.
“We want the keiki to follow in our footsteps,” Kobayashi said. “How are we going to do that if we do not make this career attractive?”
Among others testifying in person in strong support of the bill were representatives of Kamehameha Schools, Parents for Public Schools of Hawaii, and the He‘e Coalition (Hui for Excellence in Education), which represents more than 40 organizations.
The starting salary for public school teachers in Hawaii who have completed a state-approved teacher education program is $49,100 per year. Given the high cost of living here, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies individuals earning less than $67,500 as “low income.”
“Our department cannot solve the cost of living issue alone, but we can and will advocate for our teachers to be compensated at a professional level that enables them to live and thrive in Hawaii,” said Superintendent Christina Kishimoto. “As long as teachers are being paid below the poverty level, Hawaii will continue to see escalation in the teacher shortage crisis.”
On Jan. 7, the department boosted pay for teachers in the shortage areas of special education, Hawaiian language immersion and geographically hard-to-staff areas. The annual “pay differentials,” ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 a year, were approved by the Board of Education and backed by Gov. David Ige but still need to be funded in the next fiscal year.
In addition, the department and the teachers’ union are asking legislators to approve altering the salary schedule to better account for years of experience, to keep senior teachers from leaving.
“In many cases, teachers who have a difference of 10 or more years of experience have the same salary,” said Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee.
The union says $70 million is needed to cover the cost of the pay differentials and to remedy the “salary compression” issue in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
But Kidani, who introduced SB2488, said her committee could approve no more than $25 million and the money could be used for either approach or both. The bill next goes to the Ways and Means Committee.
The Hawaii Teacher Compensation Study said teacher salaries here are roughly $8,000 to $26,000 below the averages in a comparison group of high-cost districts in cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.
The 72-page report, which cost $130,000, involved statewide listening sessions and an online survey with 2,100 responses. It examined hiring and retention data, and compared the salary schedule with a variety of districts.
The study found Hawaii’s “attractive location” was the main positive factor in teacher recruitment and retention, while “salaries in relationship to cost of living” was the most negative factor.
The study is available online at 808ne.ws/compensation.