Priced out of Paradise: Low teacher salaries mean high turnover, second jobs

Low teacher salaries, High Turnover
Image: Hawaii News Now
Image: Hawaii News Now

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Salaries for teachers in Hawaii fall in the middle of national rankings for average pay. But once those salaries are adjusted for the cost of living, Hawaii has the lowest-paid teachers in the nation.

"In other states, teachers are respected, teachers are valued and they want to make sure that every kid has a good teacher," said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. "In Hawaii, this problem has been going on for too long."

The teachers union says about half of all new Hawaii teachers quit teaching public school in the islands within their first five years on the job. Many blame the high cost of living.
"Hawaii has one of the highest, if not the highest, teacher turnover rate in the nation. The reality is that every year nearly half of all of our
new teachers are emergency hires," Rosenlee said.
Department of Education officials say new teacher turnover is actually on the decline -- from a peak of 50 peak in 2004 down to 37 percent in 2012.

But they acknowledge turnover remains a challenge.
"We're trying to make it a profession where people want to stay," said DOE Deputy Director Stephen Schatz.

"Teachers do this because they care about the students and they care about their community and they're not doing it to get rich, but we need to make sure they feel supported in their profession and that they can have adequate funding for the supplies that they need and that they can make a living."
Salaries for newly-hired accredited teachers with a bachelor's degree start around $45,000.
"In New York, with a similar cost of living, a beginning teacher there can make close to $60,000 starting," Rosenlee said. "That's more than the average teacher makes here in Hawaii. They pay their teachers well, but for some reason in Hawaii we haven't been doing that and that's why we have this high teacher turnover. This is why we can't find enough teachers for our classrooms."

Schatz says the teacher shortage is partly due to the limited number of Hawaii residents going into classrooms.

There just are not enough teachers coming out of local institutions to fill the number of vacancies DOE has, he said, so they need to recruit on the mainland. Union officials say the challenge with that is many come to Hawaii without realizing how high the cost of living is -- and they don't stick around for long. 
"I think it's easier for folks who have roots here. They have a support network. A lot of us live with in-laws or family members or roommates. That's not an uncommon situation for anyone in Hawaii, whether they're in education or not," Schatz said.

Jenifer Evans is a first-year teacher at Moanalua Elementary School. She's a proud product of public schools in Hawaii, and has every intention to stay home, but says she's struggling to make ends meet like so many others.
"I think if the salary reflected the effort, it would definitely make an impact and keep teachers in the classroom," she said.

Her paychecks don't go far, but instead of saving up or paying down her student loans, Evans says she's spent nearly $2,000 out of pocket on supplies for her second-grade classroom

"Sometimes, when my family could afford, it they would give me a gift. 'Hey, you said you needed containers. Here you go, Merry Christmas.' My boyfriend is like, 'Hey, you need binders? Happy Valentine's Day.' The school actually gave me a $200 stipend to start off with, but $200 goes so quickly when there are no staplers or tape dispensers in the classroom," she said.

Evans says the money she has personally spent was worth it to get her students what they need to succeed, but she admits it has been at the expense of her already tight budget.

"It's really impacting the decisions I'm making in the future. How long until I can get married? How long until I can own my own home and have my own kids to put through the Hawaii education system?"

According to a recent teachers union survey, 40 percent of public school teachers take on a side job, in some cases more than one, just to cover their living expenses.

Evans says she knows quite a few other teachers who rely on a second source of income.

"They tell me, 'Sometimes I'm thinking about my second job. How do I get there and beat traffic after school when I should be thinking about how do
I support this child who isn't understanding how to read yet?'"

Union officials say it's students who suffer the most from a revolving door of educators.

"By valuing our kids that means that we make sure that every kid has a good teacher in their classroom. And if a teacher cannot afford to be a teacher
then we lose too many good teachers," Rosenlee.

DOE officials agree.

"The most important thing we can do to make education work in Hawaii is to have excellent teachers in each one of our classrooms," Schatz said.

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