At the Hawaii Department of Education’s back-to-back budget briefings last week, state lawmakers made clear that they want more specific answers about the reasons behind the state’s perpetual teacher shortage and what DOE is doing to address it.

“I don’t mean to be skeptical, but it seems like we hear these things year after year and year, and we have the same crisis,” state Sen. Breene Harimoto said to superintendent Christina Kishimoto after her presentation. “So what are you doing differently and how much more investment do we really need to make to make a dent in this?”

A day later, state Rep. Stacelynn Eli, a first-time legislator from the Leeward side, asked the DOE at the House Finance Committee meeting to justify its approach to teacher recruitment.

“I guess the perception is, there’s no real focus on growing local teachers — there are some, but not really, so do your numbers reflect that?” she asked. “That’s my curiosity. How many local teachers are you recruiting versus transferring from out of state?”

House Finance Committee members questioned DOE administrators on topics such as teacher retention, repair and maintenance backlog and the student achievement gap during a Jan. 15 informational briefing.

Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The DOE’s latest employment report for the 2017-18 school year, released last month, provides a snapshot of the teacher hiring landscape in Hawaii.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the breakdown of out-of-state teachers.

Last year, out of a total 1,380 newly employed teachers, 45 percent of hires completed a state-approved teacher education program from an “out of state” college whereas 28 percent went through an in-state program. This is the most telling indicator from the DOE’s report of where new teachers are coming from, and it strongly suggests more teachers are being hired from the mainland versus from within Hawaii over the last five years.

Additionally, about 377 teachers, or 27 percent of new hires, didn’t go through a state-approved teacher education program, meaning they are “not highly qualified” and lack a professional teaching certificate. The DOE does not distinguish how many in that group are from the mainland, although it could be as many as one-third, according to another DOE chart indicating teacher “classification status.”

That could push the out-of-state teacher share to more than half of all new hires.

The number of students earning an education degree at UH Manoa, which sends the most in-state grads into the teacher workforce, has declined from 2012 to 2016. In the 2013-14 school year, the DOE hired 455 in-state education graduates, comprising 38 percent of new teachers that year.

By last school year, that number dipped to 380, comprising just 28 percent of new teachers in Hawaii.

In light of the dwindling supply of in-state qualified teachers, it makes sense to look to the mainland. But out-of-state teachers don’t always stay very long, with roughly 50 percent of new hires staying at least five years.

Cynthia Covell, assistant superintendent for the DOE’s Office of Talent Management, which oversees teacher recruitment and retention, acknowledged that the department has seen an increasing number of teachers departing Hawaii for the mainland.

“The number going back to the mainland has been higher over the last couple of years,” she said at one of the hearings.

It’s not clear exactly what is driving those departures because the DOE doesn’t share more specific data from its teacher exit surveys.

The DOE’s annual employment report captures six very broad “reasons for voluntary teacher separations,” including leaving Hawaii, retirement, family and personal issues, a non-DOE teaching job, a non-teaching job or workplace environment.

That level of vagueness was a sticking point for one legislator, a former DOE teacher.

Rep. Scot Matayoshi, a first-time legislator from Kaneohe who taught at Nanakuli High and Intermediate School for three years, pressed Covell at the House finance briefing on whether more specific data capture could help the department stem the flow of departures by mainland recruits.

“Maybe we could make that a little more specific,” he said of surveys. “I really wonder if it’s (lack of) pay they’re returning for, or not acclimating to the culture. There’s so many reasons they could (leave) and I’d like us to focus on why they’re actually leaving, not just where they are going, to try and retain more teachers.”

Covell responded that the DOE actually has a more specific breakout of categories and pledged to share that information with Matayoshi’s office. Civil Beat asked the DOE for that data but the request was denied.

“This information currently is not part of a public document or report,” DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said. “The data is used internally for management decisions.”

‘Multipronged Approach’

During the hearings, DOE administrators continually promoted a “multipronged approach” to both hiring enough classroom teachers and preventing the loss of teachers.

This includes grooming young students in DOE schools to consider a career in teaching through “teacher academies;” relying more on its mentoring programs, particularly for special education teachers; partnering with Teach for America; and recruiting among retired military personnel or even outside the U.S.

“We’re not doing one exclusive of the other,” Kishimoto told lawmakers. “The need of replacing almost 1,000 teachers a year is quite a lift and so we’re using a multipronged approach.”

Cynthia Covell, right, assistant superintendent at the DOE’s Office of Talent Management, said it will take at least five years to close the teacher shortage gap in the state.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A five-year strategic plan released by the Teacher Education Coordinating Committee, an advisory committee comprised of DOE and the University of Hawaii College of Education, outlines where education leaders are focusing their efforts.

For instance, it’s planning to commission a teacher compensation study to examine how much Hawaii needs to pay its teachers to make working here competitive and sustainable. The commission will also look to best practices outside Hawaii for addressing teacher recruitment and retention challenges in those areas.

Findings from that pay study would set a “specific competitive pay goal” by 2020 but wouldn’t translate into benefits like signing bonuses, moving expenses or differential pay for rural areas until at least 2021, according to a blueprint of the plan.

“It’s a five-year plan. It’s going to take us five years to close the gap completely,” Covell said.

Contact Key Lawmakers

Legislators have something similar in mind. House Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the newly combined Lower and Higher Education Committee, has introduced a bill to require the DOE to enlist a consultant that specializes in school finance to study the “adequacy of funding for education in Hawaii.”

The study would compare Hawaii teacher salaries with mainland teacher salaries to determine characteristics “that affect the department of education’s ability to recruit and retain qualified teachers.” The bill also requires DOE to submit findings from that study before the start of the 2020 session.

Additionally, Sen. Stanley Chang has proposed a bill that would provide a housing voucher to DOE and public charter school teachers to help offset the costs of rent or a mortgage.

The year-old “Grow our Own” initiative enables DOE substitute teachers, education assistants or emergency hires with bachelor’s degrees to obtain a teaching certificate from UH tuition-free with a commitment to teach in the public schools for three years. The program has about 30 participants per year.

Rochelle Potter, a Big Island resident, is getting her teacher’s license through the program. While she is not originally from Hawaii, she has no plans to leave and is committed to the teaching profession.

But she recognizes the importance to kids of having teachers with local connections.

“I’ve been in Hawaii for seven years and while I do have an understanding of my students’ culture and context, I am the product of a different land, a different experience and a different language,” she said.

“Although this doesn’t disqualify my ability to impact the lives of my students, it would carry a deeper, more poignant power if it came from teachers who innately understood students’ context and culture.”

The Senate Education Committee has scheduled an informational briefing for Friday afternoon on the statewide efforts to recruit and retain teachers.

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