Hawaii is ranked the worst state for public school teachers, according to a new survey.
The state comes in dead last for the average starting salary and median annual salary for all public school teachers in the country once the cost of living is factored in.
"I think what this study shows is that we need to make education a priority in Hawaii and we're not. For too long we have underfunded our school system. We haven't treated our teachers well and now we're ranked last in the nation," said Corey Rosenlee, Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) President.
The Department of Education says teachers in Hawaii make about 4% less than teachers in the rest of the U.S, but the teacher's union says that figure doesn't compare the state to school districts with similar costs of living. HSTA believes the difference is closer to average salaries that are $15,000 to $20,000 less than mainland counterparts.
"This report is one of many studies that shows we are not valuing our children because we're not investing in their education," said Rosenlee.
DOE officials disagree.
"We really value our teachers and our teachers are doing a wonderful job. So headlines like this, I think, it really effects the morale of our schools to see something like that when we have outstanding teachers," said the Department of Education spokesperson Donalyn Dela Cruz.
The DOE doesn't set teacher salaries -- that's all done during collective bargaining between HSTA and the Governor -- but department officials say they are responsible for school environment.
"The school environment really lends to the morale of our teachers, our students, our staff. This year we will be going into the Legislature with a really big budget ask $700 million just to try to repair and maintain our schools as well as just give a facelift to those schools that need it," said Dela Cruz.
The state Legislature is responsible for controlling "per pupil" funding for public education -- money that goes towards school supplies, positions and programs. Lawmakers say dollar for dollar around the country, Hawaii's salaries are not the worst -- that only happens when they're adjusted for the cost of living. But in doing so, legislators say that provides the state with more potential solutions.
"Not only are we going to advocate for higher teacher salaries as I think we should but we also need to be looking at advocating for lowering the cost of living here in Hawaii. Specifically housing. Housing is the biggest expense," explained House Education committee Vice Chair Rep. Takashi Ohno (D - Nu'uanu, Liliha, Pu'unui, Alewa Heights).
HSTA says low wages effect the DOE's ability to attract and keep teachers in Hawaii's classrooms.
"What we know in Hawai'i is that the amount of teachers leaving is increasing and the amount of teachers going into the profession is decreasing and that's why we have such a teacher crisis -- that gap is growing," said Rosenlee.
Department of Education officials say retention rates have improved by 10% in recent years and new initiatives have made a difference in recruitment as well -- helping to reduce vacancies from over 1,600 positions this summer to a little more than 400 currently.
"We are looking at career pathways to encourage students -- specifically in hard to fill areas, say for example the Waianae Coast. We're working right now with UH West O'ahu to create careers pathways for teaching that way we have teachers in the Waianae community staying there."
Negotiations for higher teacher salaries between HSTA and the Governor have just begun. The current union contract expires in July. A new collective bargaining agreement will need to be approved by the Legislature.