To stem exodus of preschool teachers, lawmakers consider using taxpayer dollars to boost their pay

Hawaii preschools say a shortage of qualified teachers is making Hawaii’s childcare crisis even worse.
Published: Apr. 7, 2023 at 4:58 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 7, 2023 at 9:24 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii preschools say a shortage of qualified teachers is making Hawaii’s childcare crisis even worse. Now, lawmakers are considering using taxpayer money to give some underpaid educators a raise.

The proposal is ambitious, but experts point out that early childhood educators are a critical part of Hawaii’s economic infrastructure. Without them, many parents would no longer be able to work.

Often viewed as just a babysitter, early childhood educators rarely get the respect they deserve.

On top of preparing little ones for preschool they lay the foundation, teaching critical life skills, like interacting with others and how to handle problems.

Unfortunately, that’s not reflected in the pay.

Tina Puricelli makes just $15 an hour.

“And that’s probably a higher wage,” she said.

The educator says the only reason she’s been able to keep teaching at Sunshine School Kailua is because she has a partner who covers most of the bills.

Without that support, Puricelli said, “I would probably have to get a second job.”

Puricelli’s boss said her staff deserve a raise.

But to make it happen, she’d have to increase tuition and parents already pay $1,000 a month.

“As a director it’s sometimes embarrassing to what we are going to offer. But that’s what our budget can carry,” said Sunshine School Kailua Director Julie Kalakau.

She’s not alone. The problem impacts just about every preschool in the state.

Low wages have forced many teachers to abandon the profession.

Between 2018 and 2020, Hawaii lost 850 providers or about 20% of the childcare workforce.

“The average hourly wage is between $13 and $17 an hour which we know is unlivable here in Hawaii,” said Hawaii Early Learning Board Chair Bob Peters.

It’s why lawmakers are considering a measure that would boost wages for teachers working in all of Hawaii’s infant and toddler centers.

Through a pilot project budgeted at $6.4 million, those educators ― about 550 in all ― would receive a pay raise of about $3 an hour. That equates to an extra $5,800 a year over the next two years.

Peters says without it, “I think the consequences are we have nobody in those classrooms.”

“Unless we do something to boost the pay raise to make it a livable wage, it’s going to be really difficult to attract people and of course, to retain them,” Peters said.

He says not having enough preschool teachers impacts everyone.

“If you don’t have somebody there to take care of children, and parents have no other options <tighten> we reduce the workforce,” Peters said.

That can lead to slower economic growth and potentially higher taxes down the road.

HB 547 was approved by the Ways and Means committee. Now it’s expected to go to the floor for a vote.