Hawaii is scrambling to fill teacher vacancies. This analysis on salaries won't help

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Every year, Hawaii scrambles to fill hundreds of vacant teacher positions at Hawaii public schools. And every year, school starts with many of those vacancies being filled with long-term substitutes or teachers who aren't licensed.

There are lots of reasons, experts say, from a shortage of teachers in different areas of study to a difficulty filling spots in rural areas. But one of the biggest, the teachers union has long contended, is teacher pay.

And new statistics help underscore that point.

A new analysis for NPR from EdBuild, a nonprofit whose mission is to "bring common sense and fairness to the way states fund public schools," found that Hawaii teachers are paid dead last in the nation, when cost of living is taken into account.

The average salary for Hawaii public school teachers in 2016 was $57,431.

After the state's high of cost of living is factored in, Hawaii teachers are really only earning $40,246 on average, EdBuild concluded.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has said before that Hawaii teachers are the lowest-paid in the nation when the high cost of housing, goods and transportation are factored in. And reached Friday, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the new analysis is a depressing affirmation of what teachers in Hawaii are up against.

"The reality is we've got to pay our teachers better," he said. "It's just too difficult to survive as a teacher in Hawaii."

Rosenlee acknowledged that everyone in Hawaii struggles with the high cost of living. But he said the repercussions of Hawaii's last-in-the-nation showing are broadly felt.

If there aren't enough qualified teachers, he said, instruction suffers, achievement suffers, and the pipeline to the workforce suffers.

He said the union estimates that a third to one half of all Hawaii public school students have at least one teacher who is not qualified. A qualified teacher is licensed and has gone through a state-approved teacher education program.

And the situation is particularly acute in special education and STEM fields.

At a recent Board of Education meeting, the state acknowledged that some 94 percent of all the newly-hired special education teachers for the Nanakuli and Waianae area were not fully-licensed.

According to the EdBuild figures, teachers in Michigan are the highest paid when cost of living is accounted for. They earn $63,868 on average, but that figure jumps to $71,773 given the state's relatively low cost of living.

Teachers in Massachusetts (a place with high teacher salaries and a high cost of living) took the no. 2 spot, while Ohio (where average salaries are lower, but so is the cost of living) rounded out the top 3.

Just above Hawaii when it comes to teacher pay is Maine, where the average $50,229 salary for teachers actually translates to $45,374.

South Dakota didn't fare much better. Teachers earn $45,679 when cost of living is accounted for.

The discussion about teacher pay comes amid a national push to boost what teachers earn, and in the wake of a teachers strike in West Virginia that lasted for nearly two weeks and ended with educators getting a 5 percent raise.

Hawaii teachers are in the first year of a four-year contract that will boost pay by about 14 percent, or roughly 3.5 percent a year.

Rosenlee said that's something, but it's barely enough to keep up with cost of living increases.

And over the last several decades, federal statistics show, teacher salaries haven't kept pace with inflation. In 1980, Hawaii teachers earned on average $19,920, according to U.S. Department of Education figures. In 2016 dollars, that's $61,139.

There are several bills moving through the Legislature that aim to further boost teacher pay in Hawaii. One would offer housing assistance to teachers in hard-to-staff areas, and another would allow voters to decide whether to pass special taxes targeted at visitors that would fund education programs.

Hawaii News Now has reached out to the state Education Department for comment on the EdBuild analysis of salaries.

This story will be updated.

Copyright 2018 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.