Rebecca Arlander made roughly $32,000 in her first teaching job and then, a few years later, got a job at another school with a starting salary of about $46,000.

One is private, and one is public; both are in Hawaii

Guess which is which.

You’re correct if you guessed that Arlander’s first teaching job — and lower salary — was at a private school: Maryknoll. She earns much more at Waialua High & Intermediate, where she still works.

It might seem counterintuitive, but private school teachers typically make far less than their public school counterparts. That applies nationally as well as locally.

The median public school teacher salary in the Aloha State is about $55,300 this year, according to Hawaii Department of Education spokeswoman Dara Young.

Meanwhile, for a private school teacher it is roughly $48,700, according to Myra McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools, an umbrella organization that collects compensation data from member teachers.

The discrepancy parallels nationwide data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which shows that the average (not median) base salary of a public school teacher in the U.S. during the 2011-12 school year was about $53,000. For a private school teacher it was slightly more than $40,000.

And private school teachers often get fewer benefits.

But even though Arlander found it necessary to work a second job as a waitress during her first year teaching at Maryknoll, she says that money didn’t influence her decision to switch from the private school to Waialua High and Intermediate.

Despite charging thousands — or, in a few cases, tens of thousands — of dollars per child in tuition, most of Hawaii’s 111 private schools can’t even afford to match the salaries paid to Hawaii Department of Education teachers, according to Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

And those salaries, teachers argue, are already very low in a state as expensive as Hawaii. At face value, the state’s public school teachers make roughly $3,000 more than their mainland counterparts. But when adjusted for the cost of living, some analyses suggest Hawaii teacher salaries fall toward the bottom of the national list.

Private schools that Civil Beat contacted for salary information — including Punahou, Iolani, Damien Memorial and St. Francis schools — declined to provide any teacher compensation figures, saying they are confidential. But Witt confirmed that all but a small handful of private schools pay their teachers less than public schools do.

About 16 percent of Hawaii’s roughly 214,000 school-age children attended private schools in 2010-11, the most recent school year for which comparable national statistics are available. Hawaii leads all states by far.

Aside from the large, expensive college-preparatory institutions — places like Punahou, which is bolstered by a $224 million endowment — most private schools in Hawaii are almost entirely dependent on revenue from tuition, Witt said.

The median tuition for private schools statewide is about $7,000 a year. That money usually just isn’t enough for smaller, less expensive schools to offer competitive salaries.

“Those schools are generally wanting, hoping or aspiring to get their salaries up to par with the DOE,” Witt said. “It’s just a huge challenge. It’s probably an ideal, but I don’t think it happens so much.”

But other forces are at play, too.

First, the state’s 13,500 or so public school teachers are backed by an influential union. Private school teachers have no such support structure.

Public school teachers are also subject to rigorous training and licensing requirements. Prospective public school teachers need to have a degree in education and successfully complete a licensing exam, after which they must apply for a Hawaii teaching license.

Private schools don’t typically require those kinds of credentials, though some job postings for institutions such as Punahou indicate a preference for teachers with master’s degrees, and many call for educators who have degrees in the subject matter for which they’re applying to teach.

Why Teach at a Private School?

Across the board, advocates stress, teachers are underpaid; one study suggests that they earn 30 percent less per year than other college graduates.

So why would so many educators choose to work in private schools despite the lower pay?

Experts say there are many reasons teachers choose to work at private schools, from the better working conditions to greater teaching flexibility. McGovern, of the National Association of Independent Schools, pointed to a Columbia University study which concluded that four factors draw teachers to private schools: autonomy and empowerment, the teaching atmosphere, student quality and school facilities.

Whereas public school teachers have 45 minutes a day to prepare lesson plans, for example, private school teachers often get five times that, sometimes spending half their workday doing prep.

Private schools often give educators more control over what they teach. Even as a 23-year-old, entry-level teacher at Maryknoll, Arlander was able to define her lesson plans and got to collaborate with her colleagues on projects.

“It felt like the whole thing was more geared toward student learning,” she said. “It made teaching easier and more enjoyable.”

Public school teachers also face a range of added challenges that are rare or nonexistent in private school classrooms — special education students, English-language learners and increasingly rigorous government accountability requirements. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Physical fights, poverty, disengagement and verbal abuse prevail in many public schools, a national survey of teachers conducted several years ago found.

In some cases, the decision to work in a private school is a personal one. Some Catholic teachers might, for example, prefer to work in a school that espouses their religious values.

“If it’s a mission that you resonate with, you’re willing to sacrifice money to be part of that mission,” Witt said. “Teachers like to work in conditions where values drive their work.”

Pros & Cons

John Bickel, a history teacher who worked in Hawaii public schools for about a dozen years before getting his current position at Iolani School, said he decided to leave the DOE because he was so fed up with the government and its expectations of teachers.

Bickel, 51, left public education in 2001, the year the Hawaii State Teachers Association went on a 20-day strike aimed at former Gov. Ben Cayetano and his proposal for a new labor contract.

It was then that Bickel sensed what he describes as an imminent dark era for public education — an era defined by the unpopular No Child Left Behind program, school furloughs and shrinking education budgets.

The sheer difference in resources available to the schools — even if not for salaries — makes a big difference in the job quality, Bickel said, recounting how he had to “hoard” pencils as a pubic school teacher because they were so scarce. At Iolani, if he runs out of pencils, he runs to the bookstore and expenses them to the school.

And instead of spending countless hours fundraising to take a group of students to a national tournament, he can count on the school and parents to cover the cost.

A national survey of teachers found that public school teachers spend an average of about $485 a year of their own money on classroom supplies.

At Roosevelt High School, where he taught just before taking his job at Iolani, Bickel also had a class of 40 students in a classroom with 36 seats. As a rule, the maximum class size at Iolani, Bickel said, is 16 students.

Bickel also pointed to the differences in student and parent engagement at his private school.

“It’s nice to have eager students … students who voluntarily come to practice for the National History Bowl,” he said. “It’s very hard to get those in the public schools.”

Bickel recalled a parent meeting he helped organize at Campbell High School, where he taught before transferring to Roosevelt. The school sent invitations out to the parents of all 1,800 students, Bickel said. Just one showed up.

Meanwhile, at Iolani, at least 90 percent of the parents attend events they are invited to, he said.

But Bickel misses public education, its students and its mission.

And it’s that mission — and definitely not the comparably higher pay, many say — that draws teachers toward public schools.

As Arlander explained, public education ensures every student has a shot at success and brings together children from all walks of life.

“(Maryknoll) was really great for me, but it wasn’t where I saw myself,” Arlander said. “I had a lot of energy, and I still have a lot of energy to give.”

Transitioning to a public school in the countryside was like culture shock, she said. But she’s since fallen in love with the tight-knit community and its focus on family values and the Aloha spirit.

“There are students who have a lot of resources at their fingertips, and there are some who don’t,” she said. These kids “are totally capable of that — it’s just a matter of setting high expectations and getting them into those habits.”

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