While competitive with other teacher salaries around the country, Hawaii’s teacher pay drops drastically when adjusted for cost of living, a new study done by an outside firm hired by the Hawaii Department of Education concludes.

The findings by Denver-based APA Consulting don’t differ much from a prior study four years ago, which compared Hawaii’s pay to school districts with a similar total student enrollment and percentage of low-income kids.

But the updated study is more specific in comparison criteria, looking at districts that not only have a similar size of students and teachers, but a similarly high cost of living with Hawaii’s and similar level of attractiveness to applicants based on location.

“Regardless of the comparison grouping, it is clear that Hawaii’s high cost of living reduces the competitiveness of its salaries,” the 72-page report states. “The purchasing power of salaries in Hawaii is very negatively impacted by the high cost of living.”

A new salary study compared Hawaii’s teacher salaries to other “attractive” locations like Florida, Colorado and California.

Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

For instance, compared with other high-cost geographic locations like San Diego, New York, Los Angeles or Boston, Hawaii’s teacher pay lags by between $7,700 to as much as $26,000, depending on length of service, when adjusted for cost of living, the study notes.

“Now we have a number of where we should be trying to get to,” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. “We know we’re not competitive and now the question is, what are we going to try and do about it?”

DOE officials hope the report, which was distributed to state lawmakers last week, will make a convincing argument for additional funding to boost teacher pay in high-shortage areas and for veteran teachers to improve retention.

“The study confirms our working assumptions around the main root causes of our vacancies, and further justifies the need to take bold action,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a statement. “As long as teachers are being paid below the poverty level, Hawaii will continue to see escalation in the teacher shortage crisis.”

Attractive Location Isn’t Enough

In a 2019 estimate, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development classified a single person making less than $67,500 a year in urban Honolulu as low-income.

The average teacher salary in Hawaii in the 2018-19 school year was $65,820. A first-year certified teacher starts out making around $49,000. Hawaii’s cost of living is also 10.6% higher than the national average, according to APA Consulting.

The study also summarizes feedback provided by thousands of DOE teachers around the state during a series of in-person listening sessions held late last year and through an online survey that captured more than 2,100 responses.

“We know we’re not competitive and now the question is, what are we going to try and do about it?” — Corey Rosenlee, president, Hawaii State Teachers Association

More than three-fourths of teachers who provided input said Hawaii’s attractive location was a positive factor to come teach here. But the vast majority, 87%, said the pay in relationship to cost of living negatively impacted retention, followed closely by housing availability, potential for salary growth and challenging working conditions, including workload and large class size.

They also cited other specific hardships like cost of health care, required retirement contributions and student loan debt.

The report also summarized the concessions many teachers have to make to get by in Hawaii, including living with family or roommates, commuting long distances because they can’t afford to live in the community they teach in or working second jobs in childcare or in the service industry.

But some of the challenges recapped in the report also hit on other frustrations beyond pay, including sweltering classroom temperatures, having to pay for school supplies out of pocket and a burdensome path to getting hired by the DOE in the first place.

“These teachers indicated that the process was much faster in other districts, which leads to applicants who want to teach in Hawaii accepting positions in other districts before they receive an offer from HIDOE,” the report states.

Additionally, many teachers said they were confused by Hawaii’s teacher compensation system, which lacks automatic built-in pay increases, due to “real lack of communication for teachers about how the system worked and how to navigate it,” according to the report.

“Many teachers felt they were not advised how to most effectively reclassify through (professional development) or advanced education,” the report states.

Senior Associate Amanda Brown asks questions during DOE Teacher Salary session held at McKinley Adult School.

The 72-page report was culled from input provided by teachers during a series of “DOE listening sessions,” like this one held at McKinley High back in September.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Those concerns are magnified in light of the fact that up to two-thirds of Hawaii’s new teachers arrive from outside the state, often with no built-in support network, and that veteran teachers from elsewhere are only credited with up to six years of experience, as far as placement on the salary schedule.

State education officials are trying to push through two key proposals this legislative session that would give special education, Hawaiian language immersion and rural-based teachers a yearly pay differential, and elevate salaries for longer-serving teachers whose pay barely exceeds that of their less experienced colleagues.

Officials also acknowledge that the inability to keep teachers in Hawaii isn’t just about compensation but coming up with a more wrap-around approach.

“The Department continues to enhance our support for educators through initiatives that include mentoring for beginning teachers, housing partnerships and scholarships from teacher certification programs,” Cynthia Covell, assistant superintendent of the Office of Talent Management, said in a statement.

“The teacher shortage is a complex issue facing districts nationwide, and it will take innovation and perseverance to resolve this crisis.”

The APA study concludes with several recommendations: that Hawaii should expand its salary schedule and create more pay steps for teachers and also focus on training and providing more resources to teacher leaders so they can help newer teachers be “prepared to teach in Hawaii’s unique environment.”

In addition to teacher salaries in other high cost cities, Hawaii’s salaries were compared to other districts with more than 160,000 total students and staff of 10,000 and 14,000 teachers. Those included Palm Beach, FL; Houston, TX and Orange, FL and other “attractive” sites like San Diego and Aurora, Denver and Jefferson County, CO.

David Miyashiro, executive director of education policy nonprofit HawaiiKidsCAN, said while it makes sense to compare Hawaii’s teacher salaries with those in other high-cost places, it would have been beneficial to look at other unique, rural locations like Alaska.

“Hawaii likes to think of itself as comparable to New York and other places, but the reality is, we’re much closer to Alaska in a lot of ways,” he said, pointing out isolated geography and indigenous population.

“When you’re here, you’re either all in or you’re all out,” he added. “I’m most interested in digging deeper into those kinds of models.”

HawaiiKidsCAN released its own analysis of the teacher pay study that recommended looking more closely at the fluid employment patterns among millennials to reevaluate how Hawaii structures its teacher pay system, including considering paying its newer teachers more by “front-loading” pay increases.

“This timing is critical, as new educators must consider whether the profession will provide the financial stability for life choices such as owning a home, having a family, or even remaining in Hawaii,” the analysis states. “With relatively strong state and national economic growth, HIDOE needs to aggressively compete with other industries and employers.”

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