My Turn: Lawmakers should fund teacher pay raises

It’s time to deliver the schools our keiki deserve.

To do so, however, we must aggressively combat Hawaii’s worsening teacher shortage. According to the Department of Education, our state’s school system experienced a shortfall of 1,029 qualified teachers for the 2018-2019 school year, 352 of which were in the area of special education.

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Big Island schools are disproportionately harmed by the state’s inability to fill chronic teacher vacancies. A recent study by the Hawaii State Teachers Association revealed that Konawaena High School has the fifth highest number of teacher vacancies in the state, with 17 percent of the school’s teaching positions being filled by emergency hires.

Ka’u, Honokaa, and Kealakehe High schools also crack the top then in terms of teacher vacancies, with each school having to rely on emergency hires to fill 15% of their teaching positions. Hundreds of Big Island keiki are attending classes, each day, that aren’t led by an instructor with training in how to help them learn.

Big Island schools are also home to some of the most economically disadvantaged keiki in the islands. Our community isn’t steeped in wealth and privilege. At Konawaena High, approximately 57 percent of students are receiving free or reduced-cost lunch because of their families’ financial hardship in the last school year, per information from the Accountability Resource Center of Hawaii.

At Ka’u High and Pahala Elementary, the percentage of indigent students is so large that the school qualifies for the National School Lunch Program’s community eligibility provision, which allows the nation’s highest poverty schools to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting applications from parents.

Failing to provide these children with qualified educators isn’t just unacceptable. It’s class warfare.

To address the problem, the DOE has partnered with Gov. David Ige and HSTA on a proposal to raise teacher pay for educators working in high-need areas. Their plan calls for pay differentials of $10,000 a year for special education teachers, $8,000 for Hawaiian immersion teachers, and $3,000 to $8,000 for teachers in hard-to-staff geographic locations, like West Hawaii, depending on the severity of the need.

Numerous studies have shown that Hawaii’s teacher salaries are the lowest in the nation when adjusted for the state’s high cost of living, deterring quality applicants from entering and remaining within our classrooms. It’s simple math: if you can’t afford to live in Hawaii, you can’t afford to teach in Hawaii.

Funding these pay differentials is essential to extending educational equity to vulnerable students. If lawmakers truly care about our keiki’s future, though, they should guarantee that all of Hawaii’s teachers are being paid the salaries they’ve earned by providing the money for step raises that have been neglected since the Great Recession.

Over 6,300 public school teachers are currently being underpaid because they were not granted step increases when the state’s economy was struggling. Tying these teachers’ salaries to their years of professional service, or “truing up” their pay, would provide them with $900 to $17,000 in additional income annually.

That kind of money might keep certified teachers in our schools, allowing good educators to become great classroom leaders. It’s the kind of funding that can give students an opportunity to reach for the stars.

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And if legislators deliver it, our keiki might finally have those stars within their grasp.

Jeanné Kapela is a resident of Captain Cook and serves as the prevention education coordinator for Imua Alliance, a victim service provider for survivors of sex trafficking.