During this time of crisis, Gov. David Ige is proposing a 20% reduction in public school teacher pay, a move that will surely exacerbate Hawaii’s other crisis — filling classrooms with qualified teachers.

The teacher shortage crisis — in which nearly half of all new hires quit within the first five years of employment — is stoked by embarrassingly low pay.

Former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that teachers should be making between $60,000 to $150,000 a year, and when adjusted for Hawaii’s cost of living, these figures would be $75,000 to $186,000.

Hawaii’s average teacher compensation was just $65,820 in 2018-19, according to a report released by the Hawaii Department of Education in January.

As leaders of the Education Institute of Hawaii, a think tank that promotes public school empowerment and innovation, we appreciate the dramatic impact of the loss of state revenue caused by the pandemic, including the reduction in tax revenue due to the shutdown of the tourism industry, the closure of local businesses, and the growing unemployment numbers.

A classroom at McKinley High School in 2014. A 20% pay cut for teachers would be devastating. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

We know this lost revenue will require some painful adjustments to the state budget. However, we also believe that cutting teacher and other state employee pay is an easy but unacceptable solution. There are steps that should be taken before imposing pay cuts on any group of state employees.

Where in the $14.5 billion state budget are cuts possible? One of the difficulties is the lack of fiscal transparency in the state budget and the DOE budget. Analysis of budget worksheets would reveal where the money is, what has been spent, what can be carried over, and what the surplus is anticipated to be.

For this reason, EIH recommends immediately forming a task force comprised of budget experts — not department heads — to go through these worksheets line by line and determine where the cuts can be made. A hard-nosed review of the state budget will reveal that judicious cuts will be enough to avoid cutting teacher and other state employee salaries.

Negative Impact

As many of us know well from the Great Recession, it takes years for individuals and families to recover from salary cuts, if they recover at all. In particular, when teacher salaries are cut, the futures of our students are cut, an impact with long-ranging consequences.

Ultimately, the future of our state and of our children are crippled.

The pandemic is already having a negative impact on teachers and administrators who are currently experiencing the most stressful points in their careers. Salary cuts will force the DOE to hire even more unqualified teachers just to have a warm body in every classroom.

Presently, according to the DOE, approximately 1,000 classrooms are filled with unqualified teachers who are teaching outside their area of license, are unlicensed, or are long-term substitute teachers. What is the plan to make up for the loss of quality instruction, especially if further exacerbated by a 20% pay cut?

Why would anyone want to become a teacher, knowing that the teaching profession and public school students are among the first budget items cut to make up for lost state revenue?

When teacher salaries are cut, the futures of our students are cut.

Pay cuts are a slap in the face to teachers and administrators who worked hard to deliver education to our students during this pandemic.

How valuable is public education to the future of Hawaii? Pay cuts say not very. EIH says this cannot, must not happen.

Many years ago, Gov. John A. Burns was asked about balancing the budget. His response was, “If I have to choose between the dollar and the child, I choose the child.”

EIH believes that the state must choose the child by not cutting teacher salaries.

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