Bill aims to improve teachers’ pay

  • Karina Hernandez teaches English and Language Arts last year at Konawaena High School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Legislation proposed in the state Senate would help better fund teacher compensation if approved.

The current draft of Senate Bill 2488 would authorize a onetime $25 million appropriation from the state’s general revenues to fund discretionary teacher salary adjustments as part of an “experimental modernization project” tackling teacher pay equity issues, pay differentials for certain teachers, or both.

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“This bill is extremely important, as it addresses Hawaii’s teacher shortage by providing adequate funds for teachers to receive more competitive salaries as well as pay differentials for years of service, special education, Hawaiian immersion, and hard-to-staff positions,” said state Sen. Dru Kanuha, who represents Kona and Ka‘u and is a co-sponsor of the legislation. “The one-time appropriation of $25 million … is a start, but it will take consistent, long-term funding commitments to effectively resolve the needs of our hardworking public school teachers, and to provide our keiki with the quality education they deserve.”

According to a Tuesday news release from the state Department of Education, an independent teacher compensation study commissioned by the department found that Hawaii’s cost of living and compression of salaries for experienced educators are the top challenges in recruiting and retaining public school teachers.

The DOE launched a multi-phased initiative to address teacher compensation late last year, and on Jan. 7, a pay differential — approved by the state Board of Education in December — was implemented to increase pay for teachers in areas with the most severe shortages: special education, Hawaiian language immersion and geographically hard-to-staff schools.

For the second phase, the DOE is seeking funding for an “experimental modernization project” to address equity and compression in teacher salaries.

Pay compression happens when there is only a small difference in pay between employees, regardless of skills or experience.

The number of teachers on each step of the salary schedule is “inconsistent and compressed, contributing to senior teachers leaving the profession,” according to the DOE.

This second phase will allow the department, at its discretion, to adjust pay for existing teachers if it’s determined a salary is less than or equal to less experienced teachers in comparable positions.

Both the DOE and the Hawaii State Teachers Association supported SB 2488 in written testimony submitted before a Wednesday public hearing of the Senate Committee on Education.

State Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in written testimony that the DOE will need $10.2 million in fiscal year 2020 and $30.7 million in fiscal year 2021 to implement the first phase.

“We believe the full amount is needed in order to address the issue of providing equity within our public schools,” she wrote.

“Both the department and the Hawaii State Teachers Association agree that addressing the pay compression issue and teacher pay differentials will positively impact both teacher recruiting and retention,” Kishimoto continued. “As such, the department is committed to phase II of the strategic initiative which will focus on the discussion on addressing this compression issue, a discussion which we look forward to having with valuable input from legislators, teachers and the community.”

Other written testimony submitted before Wednesday’s hearing was supportive of the funding measure.

“This salary adjustment is crucial if we want to solve the teacher shortage crisis,” Hilo High School teacher Elizabeth Laliberte wrote in submitted testimony. “Good teachers want to stay in the profession but can’t afford to because the high cost of living. This attrition leads to a high number of substitutes or emergency hires filling vacant positions.

“Our school has some teaching lines that haven’t had a licensed teacher for almost five years,” her testimony continued. “The toll this turnover takes is measured in lower morale for teachers and lowered expectations for student success. Many studies conducted on what makes effective teachers good at what they do highlight the importance of relationships. Meaningful relationships aren’t possible when teachers are coming and going each year.”

Waiakea High School teacher Mireille Ellsworth, who said in testimony that she has gone into debt to make ends meet and stay in Hawaii, said the teacher shortage is evident in her classroom because she sees her 11th-grade English students “struggle even more so than in years past.”

“Where is the political will to educate our keiki to reach their goals? Where is the incentive for our most experienced teachers to stay? Where is the incentive to encourage our youth to become teachers and stay in Hawaii?” she wrote. “Please support SB 2488 all the way through this session to become law! Our keiki need good teachers to stay and local talent to enter the teaching profession.”

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It was not immediately clear if the bill passed out of committee Wednesday afternoon.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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