If you thought 1,000-plus unstaffed public school classrooms was bad, chances are that next year’s numbers will be significantly higher.

With keiki at home and teachers struggling to do right for each and every one, it is evident as never before that teachers perform a vital service to our communities. Yet every year, retention and recruitment do not keep up with attrition, resulting in a critical teacher shortage year after year.

It is vital that the state do what is right so we do not lose even more, despite the budgetary challenges COVID-19 has created.

Already, some teachers are planning to retire early or leave teaching in Hawaii at the mere mention by Governor Ige of the (remote?) possibility of a 20% pay cut. Given the tenuous financial circumstances that Hawaii teachers already experience, they cannot endure any uncertainty. If they hope to teach elsewhere, they cannot wait.

 

Senate members walk onto the floor before session began at the Capitol May 11. Thus far, lawmakers say teacher salaries will not be cut, even as the state appears to be in recession because of COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The teacher staffing crisis just got worse and Ige’s subsequent walk-back is not reassuring enough to reverse the trend, not when the Department of Education listed pay cuts as a (last resort) contingency in their presentation to the Board of Education on May 7.

And if that “last resort” contingency comes about, more will follow suit; many more teachers will have to cut their losses and find another way to make a living.

Remember Furlough Fridays?

As the cost of COVID-19 — to workers, to businesses small and large, and to the state — continues to rise, the state anticipates difficult times ahead. With revenue from tourism all but gone, many call for austerity and hearing that call, teachers cringe — the last time the state adopted austerity measures in a financial crisis, teachers and students bore the brunt (remember “Furlough Fridays?”).

Against all reason and despite reassurances, the governor and state Legislature seem likely to draw from the same playbook this time.

Hawaii has had an ongoing teacher shortage crisis for years. Students across the state bear the brunt: of 1,000 classrooms or more without licensed teachers, of increased class sizes, of disruption of classroom continuity.

And because about half the teachers in the state already work side jobs just to survive — a consequence of last-in-the-nation salaries when adjusted for cost of living — our keiki have teachers who have not had the opportunities they depend on to plan, prepare, grade, study, and recuperate.

Any teacher will tell you the school day is not enough to do their best for their students, and side gigs take time they would rather spend preparing for their classes.

Teacher professionalism and passion for excellence coupled with financial pressure from poor pay lead to burnout. Burnout — made worse by poor pay and the need to work multiple jobs to “make it” — means Hawaii loses teachers to the mainland or to other less stressful, more lucrative careers, contributing to continued teacher shortages.

Like anyone, in uncertain times teachers might — out of understandable distrust for the government that not long ago took a substantial cut of their meager livelihood — seek more dependable means of living. The loss of even more teachers is a loss for our keiki.

Now is not the time to attempt to balance the budget on the backs of teachers (and inevitably, their students). Rather, now is the time to take meaningful steps to address the teacher shortage crisis.

With the Legislature reconvening this week and next, it must fund the differentials that were proposed earlier this year; they are not enough to fix things but they can slow the bleeding. Additionally, it must provide ironclad reassurances that teachers will not be expected to accept a reduction in already inadequate salaries at a time when our keiki need them.

In fact, go further. Make a substantive investment in public education now.

Now is not the time to attempt to balance the budget on the backs of teachers.

Businesses know that investment is key to improved returns; the same is true in public education. Schools and teachers have been starved long enough. Invest in our teachers and our schools and see what returns to Hawaii when teachers no longer have to choose one of: prep for tomorrow’s lesson, nurture personal relationships, or pay rent.

See what Hawaii public schools do when they are no longer starved for resources, operated out of dilapidated buildings, too hot in the summer, with too little of everything.

Legislators, be leaders — find funding sources and commit to funding not just a public education, but a quality public education; one that gives our keiki what they need to grow the Hawaii of tomorrow.

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