Teacher Strike Across Hawaii Enters Week 3

By Julie Blair — April 25, 2001 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: Education Week misstated the average salary of educators working under the old contract. They earned an average of $40,000 a year.

Derek K. Minakami’s first child was born April 3. A few days later, the high school physics teacher on the island of Oahu in Hawaii left his newborn and her mother at home to walk the picket lines in solidarity with his colleagues.

Given the cost of living on the islands, as well as a pending teacher shortage, the need for higher salaries is urgent, he said.

“The apartment rents force you to live with other people, and many teachers I know work second jobs,” Mr. Minakami said last week. “When I try to encourage students to consider teaching as a profession, they say they would rather not, because teaching does not pay well. If we don’t raise salaries, we’ll continue to lose the best and the brightest.”

Mr. Minakami’s resolve was shared by thousands of his colleagues last week as the statewide teacher strike in the nation’s 50th state entered its third week, even as a federal judge weighed a request to send teachers back to class.

Their higher education counterparts, meanwhile, moved to ratify a contract last week, ending what labor analysts had described as the most far- reaching strike in the history of American public education. Before the college professors came to an agreement with Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano, some 180,000 K- 12 schoolchildren and 43,000 college students had been idled by the strike.

As of press time last Friday, the precollegiate teachers alone were holding out for raises they contend are crucial to their earning a decent living.

“When you look at what qualifications a teacher must have, the education and training they must go through, and the responsibilities placed on them, teachers should be paid much more,” Mr. Minakami argued.

Both the 13,000-member Hawaii State Teachers Association and the 3,100-member University of Hawaii Professional Assembly walked out April 5 after growing increasingly frustrated by an impasse in negotiations that had been ongoing since their contracts expired coincidentally in the summer of 1999.

“It effectively shut down public education in the state,” said Bob Chase, the president of the 2.6- million member National Education Association, the parent of both unions. “This one is particularly long. It is unusual we go into a third week.”

Unlike strikes that take place on the mainland, the one in Hawaii is unique because of the way in which the state structures its public education system. Both K-12 schools, which are organized into a single school district, and the state’s public university system are compelled to negotiate with the governor. In contrast, teachers’ unions on the mainland that honor collective bargaining negotiate with local school officials; college professors do so with their boards of trustees.

Moreover, public schools in Hawaii are financed through income and excise taxes, rather than property taxes specifically allocated for education spending, the typical funding method on the mainland. Although the aim of Hawaii’s finance system is to ensure equity, many in the state say the system compels Hawaiian schools to compete with other social services for money.

Not Enough for Everyone?

Union leaders are seeking a 22 percent across-the-board raise for teachers, retroactive over the life of the four-year contract.

As ambitious as that demand may seem, it is reasonable given what teachers face in Hawaii, said Danielle L. Lum, a spokeswoman for the union.

Living in the island paradise is about 30 percent more expensive than nearly anywhere else in the United States, Ms. Lum said.

What’s more, she said, a teacher shortage is looming, as one-third of the workforce nears retirement age, and the state’s schools have 200 teacher vacancies—the equivalent of nine elementary schools.

The benefits of living in a state where the temperature hovers in the mid-80s year-round cannot sufficiently offset the high cost of living to recruit and retain educators, Ms. Lum said. Teachers in Hawaii also must bargain for annual incremental raises usually awarded as a matter of routine to teachers on the mainland to combat inflation, she said. Some educators have been teaching for seven or eight years but have yet to receive even modest cost-of-living adjustments, Mr. Lum said.

But Gov. Cayetano says the union should be content with the 14 percent pay raise he has offered. “It’s not that the state doesn’t have the money to give pay raises,” the governor said in a radio address last week. “But we don’t have enough money to give pay raises at the level they are talking about and yet continue to provide the programs that we have right now for the rest of the population— whether it be for people who are poor, needy, disabled, or people who suffer from drug use.”

Furthermore, the governor, a Democrat, said that he has long protected teachers and provided them with raises during the tough economic times of the 1990s. Unlike other parts of the United States, which have enjoyed a boom over much of the past decade, Hawaii saw its economy fall into a recession—in large part, because of a drop in the nearby Asian markets.

In 1997, the last time a teachers’ contract was negotiated there, the union agreed to a 17 percent pay raise over 21/2 years but required that the school year be lengthened by seven days.(“Averting Strike, Hawaii Teachers Agree on Contract,” Feb. 26, 1997.)

Milk and Bread

Beginning teachers in Hawaii now earn an average salary of $29,000, Ms. Lum said. Beginning educators elsewhere earn an average of $27,700. On average, Hawaii’s educators earn $58,000, in comparison with $41,950 nationally. But that isn’t enough to live on, teachers in the state contend.

The average cost of a modest two-bedroom home in Hawaii, for example, was $299,000 last year, according to S. Lawrence Yun, an economist with the National Association of Realtors, in Washington. Two-bedroom apartments ran about $2,000 a month, he added. Only San Francisco ranks higher in cost.

Elsewhere in the nation, a two-bedroom home goes for an average of $139,000, Mr. Yun said. Rents are also significantly lower, on average, on the mainland than in Hawaii.

It isn’t just the housing that is expensive, added Charlene H. Miyashiro, a 5th grade teacher who works on the island of Hawaii. Even the most basic provisions are barely affordable by teachers who earn so- called middle-income salaries. A gallon of milk costs about $5.89, while the price of a loaf of bread runs an average of $3.89, she said.

On the mainland, such items may go for at least a couple of dollars less. For example, milk cost $3.09 last week at a Safeway supermarket in Bethesda, Md., where the cost of living is higher than the national average. Bread was $1.99.

Hawaii’s students and their parents perceive teachers to be underpaid and are generally supportive of the strike, yet they worry about the toll the walkout is taking, said John F. Friedman, the president of the Hawaii State Parent, Teacher, Student Association. It is a hardship for many families to find supervision for their youngsters, and, as the strike continues, he said, older students are more likely to drop out of school entirely.

Many people also are concerned about the disruption to students’ academic programs. Students in Hawaii tend to perform below average on national tests.

The state ranked 40th out of 44 jurisdictions on the 8th grade science National Assessment of Education Progress in 1996, 39th out of 47 on the 4th grade mathematics in 1996, and 41st out of 43 on the 4th grade reading assessment in 1998.

To make up for lost school days, state education officials say that the semester will be extended into summer if the strike continues beyond May 3. If it ends before then, the school year will end June 7, as originally planned, according to Greg Knudson, a department spokesman.

If there is no resolution soon, however, U.S. District Judge David Ezra has indicated that he may be forced to intervene, said Shelby Anne Floyd, a lawyer who represents special education students. As a result of a suit she filed on their behalf, a federal court mandated last June that the state comply fully with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Ms. Floyd filed a motion in federal court in Honolulu last week arguing that the strike was preventing the state from fulfilling its duty to those students, as ordered in the lawsuit known as Felix v. Cayetano.

“The judge made clear in informal discussions with the negotiators from both the state and the union that he could intervene and, in essence, take over the provision of those services,” Ms. Floyd said.

Bonuses on Campus

On the higher education side, meanwhile, leaders of the professors’ union and the governor said they were pleased with the package that was tentatively accepted last week.

Under the two-year contract, faculty members will receive a 10 percent raise and are eligible for a 2 percent bonus, said Christine E. Maitland, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association affiliate. Details of how the bonus will be distributed will be worked out at each campus, she said.

Long-neglected part-time lecturers will garner part of that pay raise, a point of contention for the professors’ union, Ms. Maitland said. Moreover, the extracurricular activities of community college educators will finally be recognized by the state, she said.

Under the old contract, professors were expected to teach several courses in addition to serving the college community in other ways, said Bill Puette, a professor of labor studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In contrast, those teaching at four-year colleges were afforded lighter loads in order to accommodate the writing of grant proposals and other responsibilities.

Members of the professors’ union must ratify the contract, which is scheduled to take effect July 1.

The academic year will be extended, and many students will be required to make up classes on weekends, said Jim Manke, a spokesman for the University of Hawaii system.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teacher Strike Across Hawaii Enters Week 3


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