Lawmakers consider boosting wages for childcare providers amid critical shortage

Underpaid early childhood education providers are abandoning the profession at an alarming rate in what experts call a red flag for the economy.
Published: Mar. 7, 2023 at 4:02 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 7, 2023 at 7:08 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Underpaid early childhood education providers are abandoning the profession at an alarming rate in what experts call a red flag for the economy.

The situation is so alarming, lawmakers are debating if the state should chip in to boost wages.

Those in the know say if you’re pregnant, it’s probably a good idea to start looking for childcare now. Depending where you are in Hawaii, wait lists can be more than a year.

The way the situation stands, it could get worse.

Little Hoku Montessori Academy Director Shadi Naderi says she often thinks, ““How much longer can I do this?”

Her preschool serves dozens of families in South Maui, where childcare is already hard to come by.

Despite the high need, she said she’s in an uphill battle to keep the doors open.

Barely making it

“It’s hard sometimes but I guess we push as long as we can,” said Naderi.

The school’s director says she’s also been the administrator, human resources department and the accountant.

“Everything except for teaching in the classroom,” she said.

The mother of two is also a scientist who works full-time for the Air Force.

She says she was motivated to open the Little Hoku four years ago after her daughter’s preschool closed and there was no place for her son.

She found a facility and hired two teachers.

“We are licensed for 24 students,” said Naderi. “They are there 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.”


Families pay about $1,400 a month per child. That’s up about $50 from what it used to be.

Even with the increase, tuition fees don’t cover expenses.

“We had a 230% increase in our rent in the past two years. We increased our payroll by 30%, to retain our teachers. Inflation is about 6%. The electricity jumped significantly,” said Naderi.

To make ends meet, she pays herself a fraction of what a director typically makes.

Naderi says if she didn’t have her other job, she would have had to close a long time ago.

During COVID, she was also awarded about $80,000 in federal funding. All of it went to her staff.

“It covered about 60% of our payroll for the year,” she said. “But the question is, what am I going to do after grants stop coming.”

Seeking a living wage

Keopu Reelitz, director of early learning and health policy for Hawaii’s Children’s Action Network, said the simple reality is people in Hawaii can’t make a living wage as a preschool teacher.

She said the average early childhood educator makes between $13 and $17 an hour. That’s about half of what it takes to live a modest lifestyle in the islands.

The situation has prompted many to abandon the profession.

According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, between 2018 and 2020 Hawaii lost 850 providers. That equates to 20% of the childcare workforce.

To help relieve the crisis, lawmakers are considering a measure that would help boost wages.

It’s already happening in other states.

“The District of Columbia, Tennessee, North Carolina. They’ve started to work as simply as possible, giving more money straight from the government to early childcare and education professional,” Reelitz said.

The reason? The childcare shortage is a problem that hurts everyone.

“It’s going to impact our economy,” said Naderi, adding that it could have a ripple effect in the workforce if parents are unable to work because there’s no one to take care of the kids.

Naderi said, “If we don’t see the support from our government, unfortunately, we’re going to see more preschools closing down.”

Naderi says money from her COVID grant runs out next month. Meanwhile, the Childcare Worker Subsidy Pilot Project has made it through the state House and is now before the Senate.