Viewpoint: BOE shares responsibility for high teacher turnover

The Hawaii Board of Education members concerned about the state’s abnormally high teacher turnover rate need look no further than the governor who appointed them to discover the primary reason for teachers leaving the profession in droves.

To paraphrase a famous framed saying that used to hang in the Oval Office of the White House: “It’s the money, stupid!”

News reports coming out earlier this month on a BOE meeting had board members startled with figures that demonstrate that more than half of new teachers leave Hawaii public education within their first five years of employment.

Startled? Really?

When Gov. Neil Abercrombie rolled out his newly appointed Board of Education after his election, he was quick to point out that the board consisted primarily of successful business executives so that the Hawaii Department of Education could be run like a business. The glaring absence then of anyone with a background in education appeared to indicate that decision-making by anyone who actually worked in education would reflect narrow self-interests.

Is a skewed rationale for appointment to the board what led to this disconnect, to the startling statistics verified by the Department of Education that apparently have caught the DOE’s board of directors by surprise?

The successful entrepreneur, unless exploiting slave labor in some Third World country, concedes that underpaid employees lead to revolving doors. In some businesses, where training is minimal, high turnover is expected and accepted as a means of wringing the last penny out of an enterprise. When it comes to teachers, however, DOE officials agree that high turnover is decidedly not a good thing. There is too much professional development and invaluable on-the-job experience at stake.

Hawaii indeed has a problem. The state DOE’s own numbers show that of the 1,591 teachers newly hired in 2006, only 715 are still active. The next year, 1,465 teachers were hired but just 691 are still active.

Twenty percent of the teachers hired in 2011 – the year Abercrombie won election – have already left, state-gathered data show.

Kerry Tom, director of the DOE’s Personnel Management Branch, told the BOE recently that teachers leave for many reasons – moving, high cost of living, child care. Funny what all of those reasons boil down to – like in lack of money.

The BOE should stop behaving as if the directors cannot see what is in front of their noses. A beginning teacher’s monthly pay amounts to around $1,800 net, with medical and other withholdings taken out. That is clearly why teachers are leaving.

One of those beginning teachers announced tearfully to teachers at my school that she could not take it anymore. Pressured as she was to perform in her first year, the breaking point came as she saw her monetary reward for the stress she endured amount to less than she might have made in a fast-food restaurant.

Commonly heard among first-year peers is discussion of the buyer’s remorse they experienced after spending upward of six figures on college courses that qualify them to teach. Ironically, most have more years in their education than many of the education board members.

The net amount referred to above came about with the 5 percent pay cut unilaterally imposed in 2012 on public school teachers by Abercrombie – the “education governor.”

When did any of the BOE members stand up to that dictum and advise the guy who appointed them that his handling of the teachers’ contract was less than wise, less than fair?

Yes, it is about money. It is about a living wage. It is about paying for the education and professional development required to teach and improve education in public schools.

Help the teachers struggling to make a living. To do less only aggravates what is becoming a growing discontent among the people who are really responsible for improving education in Hawaii.

* Alan Isbell is a 4th-grade teacher at Wailuku Elementary School and the school’s head faculty representative for the Hawaii State Teachers Association.