About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

One aspect of life in Hawaii that has remained unchanged through the pandemic is the looming threat of budget cuts in education. This is not for no reason: education gobbles up a substantial chunk of the state budget, consistently comprising one of the three largest government expenses in the state every year. It’s sensible, then, to look to the Department of Education for fat to trim in fiscally perilous circumstances.

This time around, however, there’s a new wrinkle to the discussion: pay differentials for Hawaiian language teachers, special education teachers, and teachers who work in remote school districts.

These additional salary bumps range anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000 per year, and went into effect in January 2020 — right before the pandemic hit.

In a Feb. 9 letter to school leaders, DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto wrote that these pay differentials have “produced the desired and intended effect of lowering vacancy and retention rates for these high-need areas,” but we “can no longer afford,” them so there is “no choice but to discontinue these shortage differential payouts.”

Trying times call for re-evaluation, and it’s reasonable to scrutinize these pay differentials. If expenses can’t be justified, then perhaps they deserve to be on the chopping block.

But it’s crude analysis to think they are merely a function of some rudimentary supply-and-demand bargain. That’s not entirely untrue, but it is incomplete. The real question is why these are hard positions to fill in the first place, and why they require additional incentive.

For Hawaiian language teachers, there is indeed a supply shortage, since there aren’t enough proficient speakers who are also qualified to teach. But Hawaiian language teachers don’t just teach Hawaiian language; they teach all subject areas in Hawaiian, which requires an additional layer of qualification compared to most teachers.

As more Hawaiian immersion schools open and more students start speaking the language from an earlier age, there will likely be more people who are both fluent in Hawaiian and interested in teaching, in which case it may be worth revisiting the salary bump. Though, to be clear, I’m not personally advocating for any reduction or elimination of pay differentials for Hawaiian language teachers so much as pointing out the rationale.

Social distanced classroom with desks spaced apart at Kaneohe Elementary School summer school during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Hawaii schools struggle to find special education teachers, Hawaiian language teachers and teachers willing to go to remote areas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Geographically isolated schools experience a teacher shortage that is really just a more pronounced version of the state’s overall teacher shortage. When fewer people live in a school district, there is a smaller pool of qualified teachers from which to hire. This means asking teachers to either commute or move, either of which typically requires some extra incentives.

Special education is different, though. The reason why there is a perpetual shortage and high turnover rate is because it’s simply a more difficult and laborious job. It also requires additional qualifications for both subject matter and special education itself. And that’s in normal times; the challenges of teaching students with learning disabilities has been greatly exacerbated by distance learning.

This is not to diminish the difficulty of any other teaching job. It’s objective reality that SPED requires more meetings, more paperwork to fill out and file, more involvement with students, more communication with parents, more coordination with other teachers and administrators, more flexibility with subject matter, and more legal liability. It simply demands more, period.

I am on team Pay All Teachers More, and I think there is good reason for all of the aforementioned educators to get an extra pay bump in order to best serve our students, but the reasoning for special education teachers is unimpeachable: more qualifications and more requisite work means higher baseline pay. That’s true of any profession.

More importantly, though, special education speaks to the core ethos of public education: the mission to educate everyone, including and especially the most vulnerable among us. In the 14 months since the pay differentials were implemented, Hawaii has seen a 45% decrease in SPED vacancies. That’s not a coincidence. It is, however, a very good trend. A broadly educated populace is a public investment that benefits all of us.

The unspoken expectation for all teachers is that we should do what we do because we’re passionate about it and we love our students. Of course we teach out of love, but at the end of the day teaching is work, and many of us respond to the same incentives anyone else does.

If you could get paid the same amount to do the same essential job but with substantially less work, you’d probably jump at the opportunity. Why shouldn’t teachers do the same? Do landlords and banks accept “love for students” in lieu of actual money?

Whenever teachers speak up about money matters, we face a backlash that goes beyond professional criticism and seeps into indictments of character, like we’re sniveling parasites trying to extract as much as we can from our hosts.

I admit that I feel a little greasy for writing in defense of the same salary differentials of which I’m a recipient. For what it’s worth, I plan on staying in SPED for the near future regardless of what happens with our extra pay.

But my life situation and professional motivations do not apply across the board. If we cut teacher differentials for special education teachers, those who suffer the most will be the ones who need teachers the most.

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto DOE press conference announcing pay increases for special needs students and other teachers.
State school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto announced pay increases for special education and Hawaiian language teachers in 2019. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

So what do we do?

The state doesn’t have an unlimited supply of funding. Kishimoto recently told the Civil Beat editorial board that we “need to be willing to make sure that students are first,” and she’s absolutely right.

Students should come first, which means we should be prioritizing the people who directly work with students.

If we’re looking for places to trim fat, let’s start with all the DOE personnel who don’t actually interact with students. Let’s start with the superintendent, then the deputy superintendent, then the assistant superintendents and complex area superintendents and keep working our way down.

These hardworking men and women have produced the desired and intended effects, but we can no longer afford to provide them the financial incentives of six figure salaries. Times are tough, and we have no choice but to discontinue these differential payouts.

Let’s reduce their salaries to that of an average teacher — surely if it’s enough for us, it’s enough for them, right? Then let’s reduce their salaries again by furloughing them for one day a month. Once we see our fearless leaders putting their money where their mouths are and putting students first, then we can talk about the next step.

Read this next:

Now Is The Wrong Time To Defund Public Health Infrastructure

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

Latest Comments (0)

While I would agree completely with looking to trim the fat elsewhere in the DOE's enormous budget and that these special positions should get their contracted bonus amounts.  I think teachers and librarians, in general, should be counting their blessings for getting an uninterrupted and whole pay check throughout this past pandemic year.  As for serving and teaching students, there was very little of this with all schools closed and many still only offering part time in person class time.  In addition, to cutting the administrative fat in the DOE, maybe the HSTA should be looking to cut some of its administrative fat as an example to follow?

wailani1961 · 2 years ago

· 2 years ago

Deunionize the the DoE.

M.E.L. · 2 years ago

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