When Leilani Frazier joined the Hawaii Department of Education as a teacher in 2008, she had already accrued nearly a decade of professional experience: seven years in a small school district in San Diego, followed by two years teaching English in Japan.

The California native came to Hawaii because she was looking for a new environment. She also had family here.

“I just wanted something different,” Frazier said. “I was at a life point where I wanted to try something new.”

The veteran teacher knew the move to Hawaii’s school system would involve a salary reduction. She just wasn’t prepared for it to be so steep. In San Diego, her pay had been just over $60,000 annually. Her pay for her first year in Hawaii was $46,000.

Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary 6th grade teacher Leilani Frazier in her classroom after school.
Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary teacher Leilani Frazier, seen here in her classroom after school, moved to Hawaii for a change of pace. That move came with a $14,000 pay cut in her teacher salary. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It was significant,” Frazier, 42, said of the $14,000 pay cut. “I was very frustrated by the fact I was losing my years of service and all of those years of credit I earned in San Diego.”

Hawaii's Teacher Shortage

A dock in pay and loss of professional development credits earned elsewhere can be a rude awakening for veteran teachers with years of experience who opt to continue their careers in Hawaii.

A maximum of six years of non-DOE experience is counted toward placement on the salary scale. Most professional development credits earned outside Hawaii can’t be applied toward a higher pay classification.

In other words, if you’re an experienced teacher from the mainland, you’ve really got to want to teach in Hawaii, because you’re likely to face a big pay cut.

Teacher pay in Hawaii — which currently begins at $47,443 for a certified, entry-level teacher — is considered the lowest in the country when adjusted for cost of living. It’s believed to cause young, inexperienced teachers from the mainland to leave after only a few years because they can’t afford to stay, contributing to a high teacher turnover and shortage.

But another element to the narrative involves newly hired veteran teachers.

Often armed with advanced degrees and depth of insight into the teaching field, they can bring added dimension to the school system with their years of classroom experience, training and know-how.

It’s just not reflected in their paychecks.

Sharon Kearney had 17 years of teaching experience in various school districts around Southern California when she was hired as a special education teacher at Maui High in February 2009. She was out of work when she applied to teach in Hawaii — which has reciprocity with California when it comes to teacher licenses.

Her job interview consisted of a 30-minute phone call that ended with the principal’s pledge he’d get back to her in three days. It didn’t take quite that long.

Thirty minutes later, she got a call back with a job offer.

“I landed on a Friday, met the principal on Saturday, found a place to live Sunday and started school on Monday,” Kearney, 61, recalled.

But like Frazier, Kearney’s starting pay was significantly lower than what she had been making at her last teaching job in California. Her pay in Hawaii was in the $40,000 range — or about $16,000 lower than her salary during her most recent job teaching special education elementary students in Santa Barbara Unified School District.

Kearney, who has adult children and a master’s degree, had previously never set foot in Hawaii. Eager to stay in teaching, she had to accept the pay and plug forward.

“I had nothing to go back to,” she said of employment on the mainland. “I had to make it work.”

Pay Not Based On Seniority

Hawaii teacher salaries are based on a combination of factors: highest educational level attained, number of professional development credits earned and negotiated automatic pay increases at the start of each new school year.

But unlike some other school districts with similarly sized student populations and high cost of living, Hawaii doesn’t give teachers automatic pay increases based on years of service, relying instead on a pre-negotiated salary schedule featuring varying increments.

In other school districts, like Los Angeles Unified, teachers are given a pay raise every year for their first nine years of service, with an opportunity to accrue additional pay up to 14 years of experience. But since Hawaii does not tie pay to years of service, younger teachers with their eye set on a longer career trajectory here have more limited financial mobility, according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

“Teachers between 10 to 20 years (of experience) are almost making the exact same salary,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee pointed out at a recent Board of Education meeting. “It’s possible that a 10-year teacher is making more than a 20-year teacher depending on how many education credits they get.”

In New York City public schools, teachers automatically get “step” pay increases for each continuous year they work. After their fifth year and subsequent intervals thereafter, they also get what’s known as a “longevity” pay increase. Its maximum teacher pay is $128,657 per the latest contract.

Hawaii’s current teacher contract, covering 2017-2021, provides for an alternating-year 3.5 percent increase and pre-negotiated step increase, for a total 13.6 percent pay increase over those four years. The upped wages cost the state $115.4 million.

The most a full-time teacher who works 10 months a year can make in Hawaii is a little over $90,000.

A net effect of Hawaii not offering an automatic pay increase with each continuous year of service is a narrower range of foreseeable pay than other school districts that may tie their pay increases to years of service, if only up to a certain number of years.

“There are teachers (in Hawaii) who probably have 30 years of service who are not top of the pay scale,” Rosenlee pointed out.

The cost to the DOE of compensating teachers currently in the pipeline for their actual years of service would be about $50 million to $60 million, according to HSTA’s estimate.

Sarah Milianta, 34, had 11 years of teaching experience in her home state of Texas before she and her husband decided to make the move to Oahu in 2016 for his job in corporate sales.

A seventh-grade STEM teacher at Ilima Intermediate School, Milianta said she was making $66,00 a year in Texas but saw her pay in Hawaii plummet to $49,000. Additionally, the 642 hours of professional development credit she accrued in Texas did not carry over here.

“That was a little traumatic. My pay here is crazy,” she said.

An additional frustration, she said, is having to pay for professional development out of pocket. Her former school district in Texas offered this for free, from hands-on science to new technology tools to conversational Spanish to better communicate with parents and students.

But here, semester-long PD courses can cost from $100 to $250 for three credits. It takes 15 credits to “reclassify” to the next level to reach a higher pay differential. So having to reclassify could cost a teacher — already saddled with other expenses, like school supplies for their kids — $500 and up.

Despite the financial sacrifices, Milianta said she and her husband, who don’t have kids right now, are trying to stay in Hawaii. “We’re trying really hard to make this home,” she said. “My goal is to put down roots.”

Sarah Milianta’s teacher salary increases in her former state of Texas were based on years of services, teacher observation scores and a professional portfolio of projects. Courtesy Isaiah Peacott-Ricardos via Teach For America Hawaii

Frazier, who teaches sixth grade at Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary, said she was stuck at “Step 5” on Hawaii’s teacher pay scale for years until the new contract came through.

“Most school districts, you move up every year. So, in 10 years, you know where you’ll be,” she said. “But here, the steps only go up if it’s negotiated into the contract.

“We all either stay together or move up together. That’s how it can get really frustrating.”

Since moving to Hawaii, Frazier has earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and took enough PD classes to reach the highest pay classification. But her current annual salary of $61,182 is still far less than had she stayed in San Diego, where, as a 17th year teacher by now, her salary would be $84,953.

“If it was up to me, if I didn’t have my family here and my husband, it’s definitely a possibility,” she said, of returning to the mainland to teach.

But she added, “I like having my family close by. That’s a big pull for me.”

That support has definitely helped: When Frazier first moved to Hawaii 10 years ago, she was able to save rent money by living at her grandfather’s house.

DOE Talks ‘Bold Action’

Hawaii’s top education brass acknowledges the teacher pay situation in Hawaii is worth a closer look and even a possible retooling at some point in the future.

“We fully recognize that recruiting and retaining the best talent requires bold action,” Cindy Covell, assistant superintendent of talent management, said in a statement. “We are committed to exploring all options to ensure every student has a highly qualified and effective teacher throughout their education with us.”

Hawaii’s DOE employs about 13,500 instructional staff, which includes teachers, librarians and counselors. About 4,000 teachers have five years or less of teaching experience; another 2,000 have six to 10 years; while another 7,000 have 10 years or more of experience, according to the HSTA’s Rosenlee.

Only a little over 50 percent of new teachers make it to the fifth year — a statistic one national education policy expert, when told this figure, said was a “huge turnover.”

For now, the Hawaii education department plans to commission a study analyzing how teacher compensation works in comparable school districts. The goal is to use the data to “establish benchmarks (regarding salaries and benefits) against other states and similar school districts” and also learn more about how they use differentiated pay scales for teachers in high needs areas, like special education, said Covell.

The study is currently in the procurement process and the DOE hasn’t yet determined which school districts it will analyze, she said.

Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto speaks at DOE board meeting.
Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto speaks at the state Board of Education meeting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto acknowledged the importance of financial mobility for teachers, saying at a recent Board of Education meeting that teaching “needs to be treated as a highly respected profession.”

Younger first-year teachers may be fine with group housing to start out, she noted, but, eventually, “they then want the same thing everyone else wants: a house, maybe land or a condo.”

“Other districts have looked to escalating compensation,” she said. “Those are all things we need to talk about and come to a resolution as quickly as possible as far as what that funding ask will be to the Legislature.”

Marguerite Roza, the director of Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University that looks at education finance issues, said school districts are seeing “a ton of experimentation right now in teacher salary schedules” to plug shortages. That includes using data to identify those years of service in which most teachers leave and where the highest-needs areas are, and tiering salaries accordingly.

“You look at turnover data: do they teach for one, three or five years and leave? Or do they have the same exit rate and then it levels off?” Roza said. “All of those findings dictate where you want to put your money. If your big problem is you can’t recruit any teachers, then raise your starting pay.”

Roza said a lot of school districts nationwide are now targeting salaries depending on the subject taught or geographic area. For instance, she cited one school district that’s paying special education teachers as much as an additional $8,000 a year and teachers in high-poverty areas an extra $5,000 a year to sweeten the pot.

Hawaii, which has a particular need for special education and secondary English, math and science teachers, offers a one-time $3,000 bonus for teachers willing to work in hard-to-staff remote, rural areas.

But it doesn’t use a differentiated pay structure that’s becoming vogue in other parts of the country.

“A signing bonus or one-year lure isn’t actually that big,” Roza noted. “It seems like a lot, but it’s not as life-changing. If you’re trying to use money to solve real labor problems, you have to put real dollars behind it.”

The ultimate downside to the pay issue will be a constantly revolving door of teachers.

It is noticeable to Milianta, of Ilima Intermediate, who said it trickles down to the way the students approach the teacher-student relationship, a building block to learning.

As an example, she cited a former student of Samoan heritage whose first name took some practice to correctly pronounce. The girl, who was accustomed to mainland teachers getting her name wrong, asked Milianta to just call her by a shorter nickname.

“She already learned that code-switching,” she said. “Kids see teachers like me as in and out. They’re used to the revolving door. It’s so assumed already.”

But Milianta got the student to say her full name over and over again, practicing until she finally got it. After that, the girl became more engaged in class, even hanging out with her teacher in the classroom during recess or lunch. But her sense of security was fleeting.

By the end of the year, the student grew distant again, Milianta said.

“’You won’t be here next year, miss,’” she recalled her saying. “Kids here are used to trying to visit their teachers the year after they’ve had them and finding out they’ve moved away.”

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