Doug Robertson taught in a Waipahu elementary school for six years before realizing that a life with three roommates, a dilapidated pickup truck and nightly ramen dinners wasn’t conducive to settling down for the long-term.

Being “punk-rock poor,” as he calls it, was manageable when he was young and single, but that started to change when he met a former special education teacher who became his wife. The couple had their first baby during the 2012-13 school year. Not long after that they did what so many other teachers have done before them: they left Hawaii.

At the Oregon public school where he got hired, his salary is $5,000 more per year than it was in the islands — and it goes a lot further. For one, the family’s rent of $650 is just over half what they paid here, $1,150. They even managed to buy a brand-new car. And unlike in Hawaii, Robertson’s wife can afford to be a stay-at-home mom.

“Everybody I know who has left Hawaii just can’t afford it anymore,” Robertson said, emphasizing that he and his wife left for that very reason. “It’s not like everything is peaches and cream here, but it’s ridiculous that I’m in a completely different school district with a significantly lower cost of living making significantly more.”

Robertson is not alone. Around 55 percent of new-arriving teachers in Hawaii leave the district within their first five years on the job — a problem that has made national headlines in recent weeks.

Turnover among new teachers is also on the rise nationally, but at a notably lower rate — generally in the low 40-percent range. Preliminary research suggests that the threat of layoffs, testing pressure and poor work conditions are key causes.

From the school district’s perspective here, it is hard to know exactly why so many teachers are leaving. Hawaii Department of Education exit surveys that are used to quantify information on employee departures offer 30 often subjective and overlapping choices to explain why. Departing teachers can, for example, check off the reason as the “high cost of living” or “moving to the mainland,” even though the latter could be in search of a more affordable life. Similarly, they can say they have “another job” on the mainland, which might pay more.

Undoubtedly, factors that drive teachers away include everything from intense pressure to “teach to the test,” oversized classes, remote school locations and particularly challenging students, among many others. But former and current Hawaii educators stress that the cost of living is often the final straw.

At face value, the state’s public school teachers seem to be doing better than many others. During the 2011-12 school year, which was the last one for which there is reliable national data, they out-earned the national average by about $3,000. But when adjusted for the cost of living, some analyses suggest Hawaii teacher salaries fall toward the bottom of the list.

Hawaii is the most expensive state in the U.S. for a wide range of cost-of-living measurements, including gas, electricity, goods and services prices, and the hourly wage needed to rent a two-bedroom home.

The state’s roughly 13,000 public school teachers have, through the Hawaii State Teachers Union and grassroots organizations such as Hawaii Teachers Work to the Rules, long cited the cost of living in their calls for substantial wage increases.

The state and the teachers’ union recently agreed to a contract that includes better, performance-based salary schedules for teachers. For the just-started school year, salaries range from $43,800 to $81,800, which marks substantial increases from last year, but that actually only returns salaries to pre-recession levels. It remains to be seen whether the recent raise will lower the turnover rate.

Counting Pennies

Danny Pecoraro, a high school teacher who now works in a Maryland public school, came to Hawaii with plans to teach when he was in his early 20s.

He worked as a substitute teacher, got his secondary education master’s degree and then taught at Campbell High School for five years. But while he was teaching there, his student loans and the cost of rent, groceries and car insurance caught up with him. It left him looking for a more sustainable situation.

And he found it. This year he is teaching in a Washington, D.C.-area school district where he makes about 30 percent more than he did in Hawaii. “As far as looking long-term, I’m more comfortable and don’t have to count my pennies and can do more things for myself,” he said.

As Robertson noted, teachers don’t go into this profession for the money. And even if few can afford a traditional middle class life in the islands on their salaries, they might be wooed to stay by other improvements.

DOE officials say teacher retention is a key focus in reform efforts. Through its federal $75 million Race to the Top grant, for example, the DOE has implemented a new mentorship program and classes that help acquaint new hires (from the mainland) with the local culture.

The district is also offering bonuses as large as $6,000 to teachers who take jobs in hard-to-staff schools.

But Richard Ingersoll, an education policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education who conducts research on changes to the teaching force, says such incentives are rarely enough to significantly boost retention.

“Some kind of bonus pay is a one-shot deal, and that may not do it,” he said. “It’s like pouring water in a bucket with holes in the bottom.”

Ingersoll acknowledged that significant, across-the-board salary increases are unfeasible for most school districts, pointing to cost-effective alternatives, such as giving teachers more say in school-level decision-making and student discipline, and mentorship programs for beginning teachers.

According to Ingersoll, the country’s teaching force has ballooned in size and now has a higher percentage of beginning teachers than ever before — a phenomenon he calls “greening.”

In the 1980s, the most common teacher was a 15-year veteran; today, it’s a teacher in his or her first year. While novice teachers can bring innovation and energy to the classroom, Ingersoll notes, they also quit their jobs at the highest rates, creating what he described as a “vicious cycle.”

The “greening” takes a toll on student achievement and it cuts into school districts’ budgets and time. And, he notes, “feeding a revolving door is expensive.”

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