Hawaii State Department of Education officials told lawmakers Tuesday that shortage differentials greatly reduced vacancies of licensed special education teachers this school year. 

Assistant Superintendent for Talent Management Cindy Covell testified before the House Committee on Lower and Higher Education that the department typically has about 200 special education teaching vacancies a year, filling those spots with emergency hires. But this school year, that vacancy rate fell about 66 percent to roughly 69 positions.

The HIDOE began paying shortage differentials of $10,000 for classroom special education teachers in January, the highest such differential in the country.

“I would like to say it’s had the desired effect,” Covell told lawmakers. “So that is one of the lowest (vacancy) rates we’ve seen in quite a while.”

Lawmakers’ questions begin about 27 minutes into the recording.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee, reacting to the numbers disclosed Tuesday, said, “It shows the differentials have been a remarkable success.

“With a simple incentive, we have been able to nearly solve this decades-long problem that cost our state more than $1 billion in lawsuits,” Rosenlee added, referring to the costly Felix suit against the state on behalf of a special education student decades ago. 

In 1993, the federal lawsuit accused the State of Hawaii of failing to provide adequate mental health services to students with special needs, resulting in a settlement known as the Felix Consent Decree. Hawaii spent $1.2 billion to meet the terms of the decree.

Covell told state representatives Tuesday that the department saw a 77-percent increase in teachers moving into SPED teaching lines this school year. Last year, 73 teachers moved into SPED, while that number this school year has jumped to 129.

“So the numbers are going up,” Covell said.

Covell also said that compared to last school year, “we had more teachers stay in SPED because they can transfer out annually during the teacher transfer process.

“So typically, they come into SPED and then they transfer out after a few years, some after a year,” she said.

While last school year saw 1,685 teachers staying in special education teaching lines, this year, the number climbed by 48 positions, with 1,733 educators staying in their SPED positions, according to Covell.

“So more teachers are staying in SPED, and we see that as a good retention,” she said.

In late July, the Board of Education rejected a proposal by the HIDOE to suspend approximately $30 million in differentials for special education classroom teachers, Hawaiian language immersion educators, and educators at hard-to-staff schools. The differentials took effect in January and applied to three areas identified as having the worst shortages.

In light of a $100 million budget reduction triggered by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and lack of funding from state lawmakers, the department requested a “temporary discontinuance” of the differentials.

Passionate arguments against the proposal were prevalent in the 4,000 pages of written testimony and among educators who testified virtually.

At the time, Rosenlee noted higher education programs that funnel educators into these positions saw a significant increase.

Rosenlee reported that the University of Hawaii postbaccalaureate special education program increased enrollment by 55 percent, and the special education licensing program at Leeward Community College jumped from 37 to 93 applicants, or two and a half times as many applicants as the year before.

In fact, Rosenlee said, “They have so many students who want to become SPED teachers now, they have a waitlist. That’s something we never could have imagined before.”