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Why Teachers In High-Need Areas Are Now Saddled With Debt

Mar 28, 2018
Originally published on March 28, 2018 7:39 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We start with an NPR exclusive. NPR obtained a new government study before it was published that says the federal government has been taking money back from thousands of teachers and saddling them with debt. To explain what is going on, we are now joined by NPR's Chris Arnold, who says more teachers are coming forward with troubling stories since the report aired this morning. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So from what I understand, this was a grant program. How was it supposed to work?

ARNOLD: OK. It's supposed to work this way. If you're a promising young college student, the government would like you to teach in public schools because we need good teachers. So...

CHANG: Sure.

ARNOLD: ...You can get what's called a TEACH Grant, up to $4,000 a year. And that's free money so long as you agree to do a couple of things. You have to teach a needed subject in a low-income school for four years.

CHANG: OK. That sounds pretty straightforward. What was the problem?

ARNOLD: The problem is that a lot of these people are getting their grants yanked away and converted into loans that they then have to pay back. Now, some of that's justified. I mean, if I graduate and go sell cars, and I don't teach, OK, fine. But this new government study - the program found that 1 in 3 people who lost their grants said that, hey, I did meet those teaching requirements. I was teaching in a low-income school, or I was on the way to meeting that four-year requirement. But their grants were changed into loans anyway.

CHANG: One in 3. So how many teachers is that overall?

ARNOLD: Well, the report estimates based on a representative survey that it's upwards of 12,000 teachers.

CHANG: Wow.

ARNOLD: And it could be a lot more than that. One of the teachers that we talked to in digging into all this, his name is David West. He's in Lexington, S.C. His case is interesting. So he took this deal. He got the grant. He did the teaching. And then there was this minor paperwork problem. And a lot of teachers talk about this. So in West's case, he was missing a signature and a date on some form he has to send in every year. And even though he corrected that, he was told, no, you're too late, and your $4,000 grant is now a loan.

CHANG: Whoa. That was the basis.

ARNOLD: The - (laughter) yes. And that seems outrageous, (laughter) it sounds like, to you. It seemed outrageous to him. West calls the company up that manages the grant program. It's called FedLoan.

DAVID WEST: I'm like, what? You know. You go through. Let me talk to your supervisor. Blah, blah, blah. You can talk - and she said, you can talk to who you want. And there's also an appeals process, and you can try to appeal this if you want. But nobody ever wins. That's exactly what she said to me out of the gate.

CHANG: So this teacher was basically told by the call center person, it doesn't matter if you're going to try to appeal this. No one will ever help you. You're just out of luck. Sorry?

ARNOLD: Right. Out of luck and saddled with thousands of dollars in debt that he says he shouldn't have to pay back. And it really does sound like there are serious problems with this process that some little paperwork issue triggers this catastrophic outcome. And since our story aired this morning, we've been getting emails and tweets from lots of other teachers, some of them with these kind of heartbreaking stories, saying, look, my grant too got unfairly changed. I owe $10,000. And there's a lot of these people.

CHANG: And what is the Education Department saying about all of this now?

ARNOLD: Well, both the Department of Ed. and this FedLoan company say that, number one, they remind borrowers to fill out their paperwork. But the Education Department also says in a statement that the findings here are concerning. We also talked to a former senior policy adviser for the Ed. Department. His name is Ben Miller. Here's what he said.

BEN MILLER: To see large numbers of teachers who think they're doing everything they should be get the burden of debt around their neck instead of a grant is really upsetting. The department should find a way to make it right.

ARNOLD: And the Department of Education says it will review changes it could make to benefit the people who got these grants. So we'll be watching to see what happens there.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Chris Arnold. Thank you, Chris.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.