In 2004, Dana Senaha was a new graduate of the master’s program in early childhood education at Vanderbilt University and had completed all the work, except for a dissertation, for a doctorate.

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She returned home to Hawaii that year to teach at Cole Academy, a private preschool in Honolulu, where she served as lead teacher and administrator.

Even with her advanced education, Senaha’s pay was just under $30,000 a year.

“That was par for the course,” Senaha said of her salary, adding it was comparable to similar early education teaching jobs in Nashville, Tenn., where Vanderbilt is located.

But Senaha wanted to be home. She lived with her parents to help offset the high cost of living and pay off student loans.

But even then, “it just wasn’t sustainable,” Senaha said.

She left Cole Academy after less than a year to accept a higher-paying, entry-level assistant marketing role outside the field of education.

The number of available child care seats in Hawaii declined by 15% due to impacts of the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Senaha’s experience captures the challenges of the early childhood education industry in Hawaii and nationwide. Wages are low, driving a workforce shortage that is contributing to the limited number of available seats, while tuition at private centers is often outside the financial reach of many working families.

The pandemic made the statistics even grimmer, as Covid restrictions and rising costs reduced capacity across Hawaii’s child care providers by 15%, from 23,803 seats down to 20,157, according to Early Childhood Action Strategy.

“Even before the pandemic, child care has been a fragile industry,” said Barbara DeBaryshe, interim director and specialist at University of Hawaii Center on the Family. “There was a high rate of (worker) turnover, but it got worse since Covid due to the high stress of conditions.”

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President Joe Biden has made expanding access to child care and preschool one of the priorities in his now-stalled Build Back Better domestic economic plan, emphasizing that need in his recent State of the Union address.

Some areas of the country are tackling the issue head on. Depressed child care wages prompted the District of Columbia to approve a plan last month distributing one-time direct payments ranging from $10,000 to $14,000 to child care workers.

Nationally, the mean annual salary of a child care worker is $26,790 and the mean hourly wage is $12.88 an hour, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics from May 2020. The numbers are not much different in Hawaii, where the mean annual salary of a child care worker is $27,840 and mean hourly wage is just above $13 per hour.

But the problem is especially acute here because of the high cost of living.

Early education advocates are hopeful that a framework passed by the Hawaii Legislature in 2020 to expand access to early education, including child care and pre-kindergarten, will help buoy efforts this session to increase child care worker compensation through a one-year pilot program and offer of stipends to recent UH graduates who commit to teaching in early education for at least two years.

“I think everyone is mindful that we need to take baby steps,” said Hawaii Sen. Bennette Misalucha, a backer of the proposals. “We’re not going to solve our challenges in one year, but it will give us enough (momentum) as we figure out next steps.”

The “Access to Learning” bill from 2020 became Act 46, which was further modified a year later as Act 210 due to the conditions of the pandemic.

The latest plan lays out a commitment to enroll all 3- and 4-year-old children in Hawaii in a preschool program by December 2032. About half that age group currently lack access.

There are other provisions tucked into the act, including requiring the Hawaii Department of Education to conduct a kindergarten entry assessment and allowing the DOE to accept private funds to establish public preschool programs.

Some bills this session reflect steps to reach the law’s overarching goals.

St. Ann School early learning class with students and the plastic barriers as protection during in person class.
Hawaii passed a law in 2020 that includes a goal of boosting access to preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children by 2032. One barrier to the goal is a workforce shortage in early education. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Senate Bill 2701 proposes a one-year pilot program to boost child care worker pay to at least $17 an hour for 5% of the 4,000-strong workforce, or roughly 200 people. A related bill in the House, House Bill 1940, proposed a similar model with a higher minimum wage of $18 an hour, but did not make it past the Finance Committee.

“We have a workforce shortage,” said Kathleen Algire, director of early learning and health policy at Hawaii Children’s Action Network Speaks. “That has to be addressed, or we won’t be able to grow and expand our programs.”

A separate part of those bills proposes an unspecified appropriation to issue stipends for those entering the child care or early education industry for at least two consecutive years.

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“That has always been one of the bottlenecks — (a lack of) early educators in the pipeline,” said Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House Education Committee who backs the proposal. “We believe (the stipend) will help lead to new teachers.”

Child care capacity and cost varies island to island. Tuition at a licensed family and toddler center can cost anywhere from $580 a month on Hawaii island to $1,100 a month in Honolulu, according to the University of Hawaii Center on the Family. A licensed private preschool can cost anywhere from $560 to $930 a month, or even exceed $1,000, depending on region.

Child care centers were among the establishments that stayed open throughout the pandemic since they were considered essential businesses, particularly for parents working in industries like health care and emergency services.

Still, according to DeBaryshe of the UH Center on the Family, Hawaii lost 15% of its child care seats in the pandemic due to a combination of forces: restrictions on class sizes early on, rising operating costs and worker turnover.

Her center launched a website in summer 2021 to show child care availability in the state, including cost, location and whether the facility is high quality.

“The reality is, where you live (in the islands) strongly determines what’s available to you,” she said. Most kids in urban Honolulu may have access to at least one early child care provider but 40% of children on Hawaii island do not have access to a provider within a 30-minute distance reachable by public transportation, the data shows.

Meanwhile, demand for seats in the DOE’s public pre-kindergarten program is outpacing supply so far for the 2022-23 school year. More than 600 applications have been received for only 405 available seats as of late February, according to the state Executive Office on Early Learning.

Another bill introduced this session attempts to collect demographic data on the early child care workforce. It would appropriate $80 million to require the Department of Human Services, which licenses and regulates child care centers, to create a registry of early child care workers, including their median hourly wage, gender, age, level of education or amount of training.

The purpose is to examine who comprises Hawaii’s child care workforce and why people leave the industry, said Misalucha.

“When you think about it, this should be a no-brainer,” she said of passing the bill. “How can you (accomplish the goals of Act 46) without knowing more about early childhood educators who work in these programs?”

In a separate effort, the University of Hawaii College of Education recently commissioned a study of early child educator worker pay with the goal of eventually boosting their compensation, said Theresa Lock, director of the UH Early Childhood Educator, Excellence and Equity Project.

“It’s really a way of educating our policymakers about these issues,” she said of the importance of the study, which won’t be complete until July.

The three largest sectors of child care providers include preschools, infant and toddler centers, and family child care providers. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

Early education advocates say just as much attention needs to be placed on recruitment and retention of the early educator workforce as K-12 teachers since studies show that high-quality child care and preschool aid in a child’s development and lead to more successful academic and emotional outcomes down the road.

Senaha, the former Cole Academy teacher, eventually returned to the field of early education by finding a teaching job at Kamehameha Schools that paid its early childhood educators on par with older grade levels. She made almost $40,000 with a full benefits package. She stayed for nine years.

Now a mother to two sons ages 4 and 7, Senaha was able to lean on her parents to help out with child care when she became a parent. She says she and her husband are also lucky to be able to afford tuition at Makiki Christian Church Preschool.

“Those of us who are teaching are doing it for love,” she said, adding that many of those she knows in the industry have spouses who can help support the household.

As for those early childhood educators who are not partnered up, she says they live modestly or are living at home with parents — just as Senaha did when she was in her late 20s and returned to Hawaii.

“If we want to go to work, we need to have somewhere for our kids to learn safely,” she said. “A lot of that is … knowing these people who are caring for them are qualified to do it.”

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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