Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories that looks closely at specific issues facing Hawaii and how the Democratic gubernatorial candidates would deal with them. Also coming this week, Civil Beat teamed up with Hawaii News Now for in-depth interviews with the top candidates for governor in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. Civil Beat will be posting the full interviews on our Governor Race election page, which is where you can find all our coverage of the run-up to the primary.

Both Vicky Cayetano and Josh Green see increasing teacher pay as a critically important step to improve public education in Hawaii, and despite some significant moves by the Legislature this year to boost teachers’ salaries, neither of the leading Democratic candidates are certain the state has done enough.

Cayetano is also suggesting the state offer housing stipends to help recruit badly needed, qualified teachers, while Green is proposing the state try out a program for at-risk students called Primary Promise that has been deployed in urban Los Angeles schools.

Civil Beat asked the leading Democratic candidates for governor about their near-term, highest-priority initiatives for improving Hawaii’s statewide public education system, and Green and Cayetano responded with those ideas.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, another top contender in the Democratic primary, declined to be interviewed for this series, saying through a spokesman he is dissatisfied with the way Civil Beat has covered the governor’s race.

Teacher Tiffany Edwards-Hunt goes over an assignment at Keaau Middle School during Friday's class with a mix of in-class and remote learning students. Photo: Tim Wright
Teacher Tiffany Edwards-Hunt goes over an assignment at Keaau Middle School. Both Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Vicky Cayetano are focused on teacher pay as an essential fix for Hawaii’s public schools. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2021

Cayetano said her top priority is to address the teacher shortage. “They’re the front line, and if we don’t address that, all the other ideas we have will not be successful.” She suggested a housing stipend might help ease the challenge presented by Hawaii’s high housing costs, but did not offer any further details.

Cayetano said these are “unusual times,” and the state also has to be bold about how it deals with compensation. As an example, she said she supports pay differentials for teachers to encourage them to work in areas where there are shortages.

She said the state also needs to incentivize senior teachers encourage them to stay on the job, and said she would press the Board of Education and the teacher’s union to “take off the caps” for senior teachers’ salaries.

In fact, the Legislature this year did that. Lawmakers appropriated more than $160 million to finance both raises aimed at experienced teachers as well as pay differentials for teacher in hard-to-fill positions, such as in rural areas, or special education and Hawaiian language teachers.

The Legislative session that ended in early May was so successful at boosting pay for senior teachers that the Hawaii State Teachers Association staged an “Unretirement Party” on Monday to celebrate educators who postponed their retirements because of the extra pay.

Osa Tui Jr., president of the HSTA, said the package approved by lawmakers for more experienced teachers this year means nearly 9,000 educators will see their salaries increase by $7,000 to $26,000 in the coming school year. One veteran teacher observed that the extra pay late in her career will also increase her pension benefits.

Mike Hino, a veteran social studies teacher at Molokai Middle School, said the adjustment will allow him to abruptly advance by five salary steps. Instead of retiring, Hino said he decided to withdraw his retirement papers in May, and he now plans to continue teaching.

Molokai Middle School social studies teacher Mike Hino said the pay increase approved for veteran teachers this year “sends a message that experience does matter, and that it’s valued.” Screenshot/2022

When the Legislature provided money for raises to clear up the inequity in senior teachers’ pay known as compression, “for me it sends a message that experience does matter, and that it’s valued,” Hino said.

When Cayetano was asked about the extra pay provided by the Legislature, she said she wants to see how the pay increases are implemented. “Like everything, the details matter,” she said.

Green agreed that “significant increases in teachers’ salaries is critical.”

When asked if the steps taken by the Legislature earlier this year were not enough, Green replied: “We’ll see. We’ll see if those steps actually amount to enough. I spoke with a teacher yesterday who in her 14th year is only making $48,000 in Kahaluu.”

“If people continue to make under $50,000 as teachers, they are not going to be able to afford housing, and they’re going to continue to leave, so we are going to have to make sure teacher salaries are better,” he said.

Green has been endorsed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association as well as the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

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Green also believes the Primary Promise program is needed. That program would require the state to add 200 additional staff in “high-risk classrooms” for first through third grades across the state to provide one-on-one instruction in reading to students who are falling behind.

The program has been adopted across the country, he said, “and what they see is, within six months, kids catch up. It is an incredibly valuable investment.” He estimated the program would cost the state about $10 million to $12 million.

“Doing Primary Promise would not only improve our kids’ outcomes throughout middle school and high school, but it also drives much better numbers into higher education, which means more economic success,” Green said. He said the program would be deployed where scores and reading performance indicate it is needed.

Bills were introduced in the state House and Senate this year to test out Primary Promise as a pilot project, but Superintendent Keith Hayashi warned that “based on recent trends, finding additional highly qualified staff to support these programs may present a challenge as some schools still find it difficult to fill their current positions.”

The House bill to launch Primary Promise was backed by the HSTA, but both bills died early in the session.

Green also said he wants to support ongoing efforts to expand affordable early childhood education. Lawmakers earmarked $200 million for that effort this year, and Green said if he is elected he may invite the new lieutenant governor to lead that effort on behalf of the administration.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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