Differentials for 4,000 teachers in chronic shortage areas will continue next school year

Posted: February 18, 2021

The Hawaii Board of Education Thursday afternoon voted unanimously to continue paying shortage differentials to public school teachers across the state next school year, directing Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto to rescind her memo by the close of business Friday that would have ended the $5,000 to $10,000 payments to teachers in areas faced with chronic vacancies.

Educators, parents, and community members turned in hundreds of pages of testimony and teachers testified remotely during a special meeting called by the BOE to overturn the superintendent’s memo sent last week that would have stopped the payments at the end of this school year to about 4,000 Hawaii State Teachers Association members who teach special education, Hawaiian immersion, and in geographically hard-to-staff locations, such as Waianae, Nanakuli, and Molokai.

Tai Baird, a special education teacher at Kahului Elementary on Maui, told the board, “I left my general education position, not only because there was a critical need for special education teachers, but because I felt that it was the first time the state finally began to understand our value and understand the important and critical role we serve with extra compensation.”

“I want to remind everyone that these differentials have been part of our solution. They were intended to drive teachers in critical areas where our most vulnerable population needs them. These differentials made a remarkable impact and keeping our teachers to recruit for positions,” Baird said.

Figures released by the Hawaii State Department of Education showed that the differentials worked, bringing down vacancies in special education by 66 percent this school year. Shortages in other areas decreased significantly and quickly since the program started in January of 2020.

Kualapuu Elementary Hawaiian language immersion teacher Uluhani Waialeale explained why the differentials are so important on her remote island.

“On Molokai, we have one Hawaiian language immersion program, and still it is very difficult to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers for our students. We’ve had many years of having combination classes with classroom sizes going up to 31 students,” Waialeale said.

“Teaching in a Hawaiian language immersion program can require double or even triple the workload of your average teacher in a regular English classroom. We spend countless hours days nights and weekends translating curriculum books resources and prepping many other resources that are not always readily available in Hawaiian language,” she told BOE members.

HSTA leaders speak out for their colleagues and students

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee told BOE members, “The Board of Education owes it to the teachers who have moved into differential positions during the last two school years based on a promise, and that promise should be honored.”

HSTA Executive Director Wilbert Holck testified, “Please continue to stand by the commitment you made to teachers of this state. To me, and to many teachers, a commitment is no different than a promise. I urge you to direct the superintendent to find the funding for the differentials, as she guaranteed the board she would.”

Osa Tui Jr., HSTA’s vice president, read testimony from longtime attorney and advocate for children with disabilities Eric Seitz. Seitz represented Jennifer Felix in 1989 and served as one of the lead counsel in class litigation which led to the state’s Felix Consent Decree on special education, costing state taxpayers $1.2 billion to improve services for students with special needs.

Despite the success of shortage differentials for special education teachers, Seitz was dismayed that the superintendent “is proposing to cut them all together which would, again, diminish the quality of the special education experience for Hawaii children and jeopardize the hard-fought-for gains and improvements that have been achieved over the past 30-plus years.”

“Going back is not a reasonable option. Denying disabled children the quality of services to which they are entitled under existing state and federal laws will cause enormous harm and lead to great hardship for those children and their families who are suffering disproportionately under the current pandemic conditions,” Seitz said.

Kishimoto responds; BOE members overwhelmingly reject her move to end differentials

Kishimoto, the superintendent, made her case to board members who said they were upset she chose to end a program that was highly effective without giving them notice.

“I will continue to advocate for funding to have these differentials continue into next school year because this is good for students and allows us to retain our talented teachers,” Kishimoto said.

“The agenda item before us should not be about rescinding my letter since I am fiscally and legally obligated to this board and the state. The question and the agenda item should be whether, in light of the superintendent’s notification, the board wants to set differentials as a priority funding area,” Kishimoto added.

“I implore you to work with me in making decisions,” she said.

But board members were unanimous in opposing the end of differentials and voted unanimously to have her rescind her memo by the close of business Friday, Feb. 19.

During discussion on the proposal, BOE member Kaimana Bacarse said, “We need to support them and empower them, not handicap them by imposing additional burdens.”

Maggie Cox, another BOE member minced no words, saying, “It’s very clear to me. We need to pay these differentials, period.”

BOE member Kili Namauu, her voice choked with emotion, said, “We can see that these differentials have made a tremendous impact. I can’t even imagine what the lives of these teachers would be without this differential and what they’ve had to endure this past year. I believe that these differentials were just one more thing that they could hang on to.”

BOE Chair Catherine Payne added the differential issue is about “more than just paying teachers extra. It is a priority that affects the success of our most needy children, which actually accounts for about half of our enrollment now.”

In a unanimous vote, the board authorized the department to spend as much of federal COVID-19 education funds as necessary to allocate the required amount to cover teacher differentials next school year, to close the gaps in the current fiscal year to cover differentials and food service as well as $9 million in relief funds for charter schools.The board also directed the department to return to the board for further discussions once the new federal funds are allocated, and the state Legislature has finalized the budget for the Department of Education for fiscal year 2022.

HIDOE used federal stimulus funds to pay the $32.5 million for the shortage differentials this school year.

President Joe Biden has proposed another round of $1.9 trillion stimulus funding. The plan pending before Congress contains $130 billion for education, which could bring close to $450 million in federal aid to Hawaii’s public schools. The stimulus bill will most likely pass next month. The stimulus bills also contain $350 billion for state and local governments.

Last July, the BOE overruled a previous attempt by Kishimoto and her team to end the differentials for the 2020-2021 school year, keeping them in place.