A pair of education funding bills that would bump up salaries for veteran teachers and continue salary boosts for hard-to-staff positions cleared key state Senate committees recently, giving hope to teacher advocates that the measures can pass this legislative session.

“We’ve been hopeful before and had our hopes dashed but this time around there seems to be actual momentum,” said Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

The proposals reflect educators’ main legislative priorities for addressing a severe teacher shortage in the state.

There were an estimated 486 teacher vacancies of roughly 13,200 total positions statewide as of Oct. 1, according to the Hawaii Department of Education. But there are an unknown number of vacant positions that are filled temporarily by substitute teachers or unlicensed teachers.

An exodus of teachers has been a problem throughout the country, particularly during the pandemic, which has added extra strain to already challenging positions.

Lanai High and Elementary School. Elementary school teacher Ninez Abonal teaches as students are socially distanced and sit behind plastic barriers.
Only a little more than half of all new teachers in Hawaii stay on the job for at least five years. Advocates say the state needs to address teacher retention, not just recruitment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

A National Education Association survey earlier this month found 55% of educators were thinking of leaving the industry sooner than they planned, up 37% from August. Nine out of 10 educators from that survey cited pandemic-related stress and burnout as serious problems.

While the DOE has ramped up efforts to woo new teachers to the islands, advocates believe it’s not recruitment, but retention of teachers who are already familiar with Hawaii that is essential.

A report by the Hawaii Department of Education found that just over half of new teachers remained with the DOE five years after hire.

The issue of boosting teacher pay has also gained traction in other states, especially during the pandemic. In Hawaii — where teacher pay is estimated to be the lowest in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living – the issue has taken on added urgency. Pay for a licensed teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Hawaii starts at around $50,000 a year.

One factor bolstering the bills’ chances for success this session is the state’s $1 billion budget surplus due to an increase in state tax collections.

“This time, (the lack of money is) not really an excuse, so we’re seeing more and more legislators who are amenable to these proposals to address these shortages,” said Tui.

Senate Bill 2819 proposes a one-time appropriation to bump up pay for 8,700 senior teachers to a salary in keeping with their years of service in Hawaii. A report from the Senate Education committee late last week estimated the cost of the adjustment at $94 million.

Senate Bill 2820 proposes a one-time $34 million expenditure to continue yearly salary boosts ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 for hard-to-fill teaching roles. The pay increases, which began in January 2020, have proven effective at reducing teacher vacancies and attracting more people to these positions, according to recent DOE data.

But the appropriation would only allow the salary increases to continue through the 2022-23 school year, creating uncertainty for teachers.

“It has been very stressful,” said Erin Mendelson, who left a higher-paying, non-classroom DOE role to teach special education students based on the pay boost incentive.

Both these bills received unanimous support in the Senate Education and Ways and Means committees. They head next to the Senate floor for a full vote in early March before crossing over to the House Education and Finance committees.

The last day of session is May 5.

House legislature special session after Speaker Saiki gavels into floor session then immediately recessed until 230pm.
Two teacher pay bills have passed key legislative hurdles this session. Education advocates are closely monitoring their progress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii, which operates as a single-district school system, is an outlier nationally in how it structures teacher pay. Unlike most other states, instructors here do not automatically get paid more for each additional year they teach. Their pay increases only when they earn professional development credits, get an advanced degree or when the HSTA negotiates a set-rate pay raise for all teachers as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

There are 12 pay grades for the typical 10-month teacher role in Hawaii, ranging from about $50,000 to nearly $92,000.

The Legislature is weighing whether to remove the top-end pay cap in an effort to encourage the highest-paid teachers to continue earning professional development credits.

Unlike previous agreements, the current teachers’ union contract, which began July 1, 2021 and expires June 30, 2023, did not include automatic yearly pay increases.

The HSTA, which represents 13,000 members statewide, estimates there are 8,700 veteran teachers whose salaries are largely stagnant due to the existing pay structure. HSTA estimates their pay shortfall ranges from $7,700 up to as much as $26,000 per year.

The union argues that increasing veteran teacher salaries will help reduce a surge of retirements in recent years that has become more pronounced during the pandemic.

In the last two full school years, retirements represented one-third of all departures from the profession in Hawaii. In pre-pandemic years retirements represented just one-quarter of all departures, the second most common reason behind leaving the state, according to a DOE employment report.

Brian Tsutsui, an Advanced Placement psychology teacher at Pearl City High who is in his third decade as a teacher in Hawaii, earns between $82,000 and $84,000 a year. If he was able to move up the salary grid based on years of service, he would make $92,000 a year.

Tsutsui’s wife, a teacher at an elementary school, is in her 20th year teaching in Hawaii. She would see a pay boost of $10,000 annually if SB 2819 passes.

“That would be huge in helping us,” Brian Tsutsui said. “Especially if you multiply ($10,000) by two, and as the cost of living goes up.”

The couple, who are supporting two children through college, have to supplement their income by taking summer teaching and coaching jobs, despite their desire to rest and go on vacation during breaks.

“It’s been a necessity since my kids started going to college,” Tsutsui said of the extra income.

The Legislature is debating a bill that would continue funding salary boosts for hard-to-fill roles in special education, Hawaiian language immersion and remote, rural areas across the islands. April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2020

Brian Tsutsui is just one of hundreds of educators who submitted written testimony in support of increasing veteran teacher pay.

If passed, the bill would set aside funds for the increases but the HSTA would still have to bargain with the DOE to hammer out the details.

Another bill education advocates are following is a proposal to continue funding salary supplements for instructors of special education, Hawaiian language immersion and those teaching in remote areas.

The bill, SB 2820, has the support of the governor, who included it in his budget request this year.

It provides a one-time appropriation to continue the supplements that started two years ago but whose future has been in doubt due to the uncertainty of ongoing funding.

As of January 2021, roughly 4,300 teachers were getting a pay supplement: 2,029 in special education, 2,230 in hard-to-staff regions and 94 in Hawaiian language immersion.

The program has enticed educators back into the classroom, including Mendelson, a 15-year veteran of the DOE.

Last year, she decided to switch to a special education teaching position at Helemano Elementary. She makes $10,000 more because of the salary boost. Even though her salary is 17% less than her previous district-based role, the increase enticed her to make the jump.

“My passion was really to be back in the classroom,” she said. “I identify as a teacher and to be able to say, ‘I’m a 5th grade teacher,’ that feels very confirming to me.”

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