by Mary Ellen Flannery
Imagine Missouri teacher Bart Tittle’s dismay when he learned that he and his fellow teachers at an early education center near Kansas City couldn’t qualify for the federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program (TLFP) because of a loophole in the state’s bureaucracy.
Take Action ›
Tell your Senators to support the RED Act and help student borrowers! Click here ›
Now, imagine Tittle’s satisfaction in finding out that the voices of Missouri NEA (MNEA) members have been heard! After speaking up through NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign, and persistently pressuring state officials to make a common-sense fix to a glaring omission, thousands of Missouri teachers can now apply for federal student-loan forgiveness.
“We feel absolutely great about it,” said Tittle. “It was a lot to navigate, but we did it… NEA’s support was crucial.”
To qualify for TLFP, teachers must work in schools where at least 30 percent of students get free- or reduced-price lunch. At Tittle’s Head Start center, there are plenty of poor and at-risk children, and many with disabilities or developmental delays who will need the specific interventions provided by extraordinary teachers to succeed.
The problem is lunch isn’t served, and so the necessary data to qualify those teachers for loan forgiveness isn’t collected and coded by the state.
“My colleagues and I have the same degrees, the same certifications, and, in many cases, work with even more at-risk children and families, but because we do not serve lunch we cannot have access to the same benefits,” said Tittle, a master’s degree special educator who has “tens of thousands of dollars” in student debt.
“One has to see the explicit unfairness in this,” he added.
After hearing from Tittle and hundreds of MNEA members, many who work in early education centers or alternative school sites, this month the state changed its guidelines. Now thousands more Missouri teachers can qualify for up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness.
For a dual-teacher couple like Jason and Kelli Woodson, who still owe about $18,000 in student debt—even after working more than a decade in the classroom, and continually taking on extra part-time jobs to pay the bills—this win is a very big deal. Their household spends almost $600 a month in student loan payments. But with Kelli Woodson, an early childhood special educator in one of Missouri’s poorest school districts, now eligible for loan forgiveness, they can expect that payment to fall to about $200 a month.
The Woodsons said they had tried, on their own, to cut the red tape around Kellie Woodson’s eligibility—and even contacted their U.S. Senators. But what made a difference was the united voices of so many MNEA members.
Too many teachers #InTheRed
In Missouri, according to a MNEA survey, educators owe an average $46,000 in student debt. This exceeds the national average of $30,000—but teachers often have more debt than other professionals because they almost always have advanced degrees and don’t earn as much as their academic peers. For them, student debt isn’t just a burden—it’s a barrier to the American Dream.
But the growing price tag for a teaching degree also has huge consequences for the millions of U.S. public school students who, no matter their ZIP code, need—and deserve—excellent teachers.
Last month, NEA Student Program Chair Chelsey Herrig testified to Senate Democrats that the specter of student debt causes many of her peers to opt for other careers. Herrig told them she figures she’ll earn about $30,000 a year as a new teacher in Minnesota, while owing more than $45,000 for an undergraduate degree from a public university. “Who can afford to teach?” she asked.
In early education classrooms, the cost analysis is similar, but it’s sometimes compounded by a lack of respect for the work of early educators — the “oh, you’re-so-cute attitude,” said Tittle.
“We are the foundation of learning,” MNEA member Sharrahan Green, who also holds a master’s degree, told state officials. But, she warned, “More educators are moving away from early childhood programs because of the lack of incentives and the lack of recognition for the equal hard work put into teaching this grade.”
Making sure early educators are fairly and equally included in student loan forgiveness “would play a major role in attracting and retaining dedicated and passionate teachers for our students,” said MNEA member Mary Rigan. These are exactly the teachers that young, at-risk students need to get started on the road to academic success.
To make their case, Missouri educators relied on MNEA leaders’ expertise and NEA Degrees Not Debt campaign resources. These resources, which include information on how to apply for loan forgiveness or income-driven repayment, are available at the Degrees Not Debt website.
Meanwhile, educators who have taken the Degrees Not Debt pledge also are lending their strong support to the Reducing Educational Debt (RED) Act, which was unveiled last month by Senate Democrats. That act would increase Pell Grants for the poorest Americans; allow students to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates; and reward states that offer free community college.
Additionally, also with NEA’s support, last month Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the Strengthening Loan Forgiveness for Public Servants Act, which would expand the loan forgiveness program, allowing teachers, nurses, firefighters and others to receive loan forgiveness in proportion to their years of service. For example, after two years, 15 percent would be forgiven; after four years, 30 percent. As it stands, the program requires 10 years for all, or nothing.