With a rosier economic outlook, the state teachers union and other advocates are stepping up calls to boost teacher pay as Hawaii’s Legislature prepares to convene its annual session next week.

Gov. David Ige proposed restoring $100.2 million to the Department of Education’s base budget and adding $32.5 million to continue salary differentials to help recruit hard-to-staff teaching positions in his proposed supplemental budget.

Rep. Jeanne Kapela, vice chair of the House Education Committee, also plans to introduce two bills — one addressing so-called salary compression in which teachers are not paid according to years of experience and another proposing to remove the cap on salary classes so teachers are more incentivized to seek professional development.

“We are heading into session with a billion-dollar surplus, which makes a lot of us hopeful that we can pass legislation that supports teachers and our working families,” Kapela said. “We can absolutely afford to pay teachers more. We need to pay them what they’re worth.”

Honowai Elementary School Kindergarten Teacher May Anne Kim in her classroom as students recite the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’.
Two House bills to be introduced by Rep. Jeanne Kapela will tackle salary compression and the salary scale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Teacher Shortages

With a first-year, certified teacher’s salary starting at around $50,000 a year, Hawaii’s educators are among the lowest paid in the country when the state’s high cost of living is factored in.

An estimated 8,700 teachers in Hawaii are underpaid based on years of experience, with a gap ranging from $7,700 to $26,000, per the proposed bill. This negatively impacts recruitment and retention, with Hawaii reporting 886 teacher vacancies, 230 in special education alone.

Unlike other places, Hawaii does not pay teachers based on years of experience but according to a series of “steps” determined by the degree they hold, professional development credits accrued and preset automatic pay increases. Therefore a teacher with decades of experience could conceivably make little to no more than a new teacher.

Adjusting teacher pay to rates matching their experience would cost the state $57.6 million, according to Kapela.

The last time a teacher compression bill was introduced was in January 2020, but those efforts stalled with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic a few months into the legislative session.

The debilitating impact of the highly contagious omicron variant on school staffing in recent weeks — with hundreds of employees calling out sick and an insufficient number of substitutes to step in — has underscored the need for more teachers. The stress of the profession since the pandemic began has also fueled early retirements.

“With the pandemic affecting Hawaii public schools now for a third school year, we must also make sure we can retain educators we already have who know our students best,” said Hawaii State Teachers Association president Osa Tui Jr.

‘Stave Off A Mass Exodus’

“Compression on the teacher salary schedule is a wrong that needs to be rectified if we are to stave off a mass exodus from the profession,” he added.

The union represents 13,500 teachers, counselors and librarians who have faced the brunt of the pandemic’s strain, from hybrid teaching in virtual and in-person situations to returning to classrooms in trying conditions amid surging Covid cases.

The most recent contract negotiated between the HSTA, DOE and state officials lasts through 2023 and did not include automatic pay increases for teachers. Lawmakers also removed 21 hours of professional development that would have enabled teachers to receive a slight boost in pay, at a cost to the state of $12 million.

The union will fight to restore those hours this session, as well as push to expand basic quality of life measures like making it easier for teachers to rent or buy homes in Hawaii, according to a list of its 2022 priorities.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the finance committee and an upcoming candidate in the 2022 lieutenant governor’s race, specifically cited several education themes in her October candidacy announcement, including expanding access to free preschool and exploring “unused state lands for teacher housing.”

The HSTA — whose endorsements are a critical gateway to victory in Hawaii electoral politics — is paying attention.

“We’re not recommending any candidates yet but as the powerful finance committee chair, I believe she has quite some sway with trying to get that done,” Tui said, referring to Luke’s position on teacher housing.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said she supports increasing teacher pay, a measure she said has legs this session due to a revenue surplus. In the past, she said, “the missing piece … was really about money.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In an interview, Luke said she supports increasing teacher pay, citing the state’s “issues with recruitment and retention,” and said building low-rent teacher housing on available land, such as on the Leeward coast, could help keep teachers in rural areas.

“I think we’re able to do some of these things because we have revenues and we are in a position we haven’t been in in a long time,” she said of the proposals. “The missing piece in the past … was really about money.”

Educators are going into this session hopeful, a welcome change after the dire forecasts last year when the legislative focus was on preventing job cuts or teacher furloughs due to pandemic-induced revenue shortfalls.

“The economic situation has changed,” Rep. Amy Perruso, a former Mililani High teacher who represents Wahiawa, said. “To be moving from talking about furloughs to talking about differentials is a radical shift.”

A last-minute effort by legislators last year to reward teachers for their hard work during the pandemic by dedicating $30 million in federal aid for one-time $2,200 teacher bonuses was vetoed by the governor on the basis that lawmakers didn’t have the authority to grant them.

Still, Ige has pledged to commit $32.5 million to continue teacher differentials, which were in danger of getting cut last year. The differentials, which began in January 2020, provide those teaching special education, Hawaiian language immersion or in remote areas an annual salary boost ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 to urge them to stay.

“He does recognize this is critical and I think the community as a whole recognizes that if we don’t support a really robust high quality teaching force, then it will hurt everything else within the community,” said Board of Education chair Catherine Payne. “A good public education system is critical to sustaining a good community.”

Pandemic-Related Education Issues

The HSTA will also be pushing to expand funding for public preschools, improve access to mental health services for students, expand availability of free menstrual products in schools, upgrade technology services for students and give schools better and faster access to Covid-19 tests.

The impacts of the pandemic on students also feature prominently in new legislative proposals advanced by community groups.

The education advocacy group HawaiiKidsCAN is proposing to directly give families grants that will help support student learning from buying supplies to at-home learning kits and tutoring services.

“Parents and guardians have had to play a much more active role in their children’s education over the last few years through distance and hybrid learning,” HawaiiKidsCAN Executive Director David Miyashiro said. “Even as students returned to schools, parents can play a significant role in supporting learning.”

Lawmakers are also focusing on expanding career and technical education pathways in the DOE to improve workforce development in the islands. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

Also on the agenda is a proposal to expand the state’s career and technical education program to add more pathways such as digital animation or teaching to adjust to the reality that not all kids who finish high school will go on to college.

“We want to provide students with the opportunity so when they graduate from high school, they can apply for quality jobs that pay them a living wage,” said Kapela.

One of the bills she is sponsoring proposes allowing students to complete up to half of their graduation requirements in career and technical education courses or taking CTE courses in a complex area outside their own.

The DOE, which has 22,000 full-time employees and is mostly funded from general revenue funds, has said it will seek funding to maintain a $2.1 billion base operating budget and $631 million to support high-priority capital improvement projects.

The state’s largest agency said in the current fiscal year, it had to “rely heavily on the federal relief funds to maintain existing programs and would likely need to do so again without increased state support.”

Senator Michelle Kidani stands in a cucumber field at Ho Farms in Wahiawa.
Sen. Michelle Kidani, chair of Senate Education Committee, was behind a proposal last year to prioritize local candidates as the next superintendent. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

This year’s legislative session will also coincide with the search for a new superintendent.

Keith Hayashi has filled that role on an interim basis since August and said he plans to apply for the top job.

Lawmakers caused some controversy last year when they proposed prioritizing local over mainland candidates, prompting criticism that they were overstepping.

“They’ve showed a willingness in the past to insert themselves (on this topic) and that sentiment has not changed,” said Perruso.

Three BOE members’ terms also are expiring in June, prompting suggestions that the Legislature consider diversifying the requirements for members of the voluntary board, who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

The HSTA wants the BOE to include at least one public school teacher.

HawaiiKidsCAN wants members with more diverse professional backgrounds and “proven expertise in education, workforce development and other critical emerging fields” like energy, health care, business and technology, said Miyashiro.

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