The Hawaii Department of Education will be seeking tens of millions of dollars from the Legislature to address a glaring disparity in pay for the state’s most experienced teachers.

The pay issue for senior teachers, education officials say, is contributing to the state’s constant struggle with teacher shortages.

The proposal, broadly outlined in a memo released late Friday afternoon by school superintendent Christina Kishimoto, previews what is expected to be among the biggest education funding issues debated by lawmakers this session.

Kishimoto’s plan calls for upping the pay for veteran teachers who have not been paid commensurate to their years of experience. Unlike many other major school districts around the country, Hawaii does not pay teachers based on years of service, but rather on a series of pre-negotiated step increases throughout their careers as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during press conference on pay increases for special needs teachers.
Christina Kishimoto, left, has been working with Gov. David Ige and Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne, right, on a broader strategic plan to improve teacher recruitment and retention. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Currently, Hawaii teachers with more than a decade on the job are effectively stuck within a certain pay range despite the years of institutional knowledge they bring to the system, according to the DOE.

Under its proposal, experience will play a much bigger role in determining their salaries.

“We have teachers teaching between eight to 23 years making the exact same salary,” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents the state’s 13,700 instructors. “That is the number one reason and biggest flaw of why teachers are underpaid in Hawaii.”

While the DOE does not specify a dollar amount it will be seeking, the cost of adjusting salaries to pay teachers for their years of service is $45 million, according to Rosenlee.

The proposal is the culmination of a more than a year-long discussion between the DOE, the HSTA and the governor’s office, according to Catherine Payne, chairwoman of the state Board of Education.

It also marks the second phase of a broader teacher pay strategic plan announced by the DOE.

The first proposal calls for higher salaries for special education and Hawaiian immersion teachers, as well as those who teach in more remote or hard-to-staff areas. Those pay increases kicked in on Jan. 7, backed by a pledge from Gov. David Ige that the roughly $40 million cost of that program would be part of his supplemental budget request to the Legislature.

The veteran pay proposal is estimated to affect approximately 6,000 teachers with up to 24 years of experience.

Under the current salary schedule, there are 14 possible “steps” a DOE teacher can fall on that determines their pay. However, each increment is not tied to another year of service. Moving up the pay ladder is determined by the degree a teacher holds, the number of professional development credits accrued and the pre-negotiated 3.5% pay increase every other year, per Hawaii’s current teacher contract which covers years 2017-2021.

So a teacher with 10 years of experience versus 20 years of experience could be making the same pay despite a decade gap in experience.

If veteran teachers were fairly paid for years of service, HSTA estimates their individual annual pay could rise anywhere from $900 to $17,000.

Recruiting and retaining teachers is a major issue facing the DOE. Only about half of all teachers in Hawaii reach the five-year mark, while roughly another 1,000 long-term substitutes and uncertified teachers known as emergency hires are relied upon yearly to plug teacher vacancies.

“We’re presenting this in collaboration with HSTA, and others in the community who we believe will support this as part of a larger plan,” Payne said. “It’s not going in and saying, ‘Give us more (money),’ it’s how does this plan fit into the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do?”

The governor could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Asked about the DOE proposal on Monday, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said she hadn’t been briefed on the specifics of the plan and said she would support a conversation with DOE and the board first.

“Do they have any kind of data about the loss of teachers, and is this going to lead to better retention?” she said. “There has to be better collaboration in the DOE and the Board of Education trying to work together with policymakers to figure out how do we get to an area to deal with the teacher shortage.”

The DOE memo states the department is “falling further behind” in terms of teacher positions filled at the start of the new year. In 2019-20, 93% of teaching positions were filled with qualified teachers, a rate that’s held steady in the last three years, while just 55% of teachers reached the five-year mark, despite the department’s goal to have reached 60% by 2020.

“Our current Hawaii based teacher education programs are not attracting and/or graduating enough teachers to fill the gap in the shortage of teachers, so one key component needed to raise our retention numbers is to find ways to entice mid-to-late career teachers to remain in the profession,” the memo says.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee DOE Salary session held at McKinley Adult School.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said compression on the salary schedule is the “biggest flaw” that causes teachers in Hawaii to be underpaid. Cory Lum/Civil Beat














If lawmakers’ remarks at a House Lower and Higher Education Committee briefing were any indication Monday afternoon, DOE could face an uphill battle when it comes to its proposal to offer a pay boost to certain subsets of teachers.

“I think there will be a lot of pushback coming on this,” Rep. Dale Kobayashi told Kishimoto. “It’s a slam dunk for me but I think there will need to be a lot of convincing.”

Rep. Takashi Ohno pointed out that the DOE offered a $3,000 hard-to-staff teacher pay incentive in the past but that it didn’t make much of a dent as far as recruitment or retention. The DOE’s current plan calls for a hard-to-staff yearly incentive that ranges from $3,000 to $8,000, depending on area.

Ohno asked if the DOE had come up with any metric to gauge whether the new proposed pay incentives would make any long-term impact.

“What was the calculation of giving (the salary boost) to special ed teachers when overall, there seems to be a shortage in the teacher labor force?” he said.

The DOE’s proposal for increased veteran teacher pay is packaged as a pilot project that hinges on a 2001 Hawaii law called the Experimental Modernization Projects. The law was intended to help state agencies justify more funding so they could revamp their recruitment efforts to entice more individuals to join their agency.

The DOE points out in its memo that the law was most recently invoked to try and boost the number of licensed health care professionals in the state.

Any funding through this vehicle would not affect the collective bargaining agreement that governs teacher pay raises. Bargaining for the next contract is set to begin in the fall.

During the last round of negotiations in 2017, the teachers’ union unsuccessfully argued for a step increase on the salary schedule for every two additional years of teaching experience.

The teachers’ union said the proposal would not impact relatively newer teachers hired within the last seven years.

The Board of Education is expected to discuss the issue at its Thursday meeting, a day after the legislative session opens. It’s the same day the DOE is expected to release the results of a study on teacher pay elsewhere around the country.

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