Ashley Muscarella, NEA’s Student Program Chair, speaks at the PSLF (Public Service Loan Forgiveness) Caucus Briefing. Photo by Patrick G. Ryan
By Mary Ellen Flannery
Greg Cechak is a 31-year-old sixth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania, who owes about $80,000 for his state university education. He and his wife, another public school teacher, also are the parents of two small children, who he worries he’ll never be able to send to college because he’ll still be paying off his own student loans.
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The light on the horizon for the Cechak family—and more than 600,000 additional teachers, firefighters, and public-service employees—is the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which hopefully will erase the majority of his federal student loan debt after Cechak has paid 120 on-time monthly loan payments.
This week marks the 10-year anniversary of PSLF, but the program recently has been thrust into peril by the Trump-DeVos proposed budget, which would eliminate PSLF. In response, a congressional caucus dedicated to protecting PSLF was formed this fall by two Pennsylvania Representatives —U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle and U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, and thousands of NEA members have called on Congress to protect PSLF.
“We can’t stand by and let the burdens of student loan debt prevent Americans from pursing these tremendously important careers in service to their communities—careers that often pay far less than their worth to society,” Boyle and Costello wrote in The Hill this week.
This is a two-way deal that was made to teachers and other public-service workers, Cechak notes. For years, Cechak has held up his end, throwing his heart into his classroom and coaching work, and faithfully making income-based payments on his federal loans. “I’m asking the government to hold up their end of the bargain,” he says.
Thousands of NEA members are asking the same. Add your voice to theirs.
On Tuesday, legislative aides attended a Capitol Hill policy briefing on the issue. NEA Student Program Chair Ashley Muscarella spoke, telling them about the impact of PSLF on Millennial teachers, who have taken on debt and sacrificed potential earnings to fulfill their passion for education. “After 10 years in the classroom, I don’t want to to have to think about leaving the classroom to start a new career so that I can afford to buy a house and have my own children,” she said.
The average student loan borrower in the U.S. graduates from college with more than $30,000 in student debt, and at least 25 percent of master’s degree and Ph.D. students leave with more than $100,000. At these levels, student debt is, at best, a source of stress for young teachers, Muscarella said. At worst, it’s a reason to leave the profession.
“If we do not preserve this program, we will lose remarkable teachers who have to no choice but to walk away from the classroom and their dreams,” Muscarella warned.
Cechak is one of those teachers who worries that his career choice is untenable. “With the cost of college tuition today, these types of programs are the only way you’re going to keep public education alive,” he says. “There needs to be incentives for people to become teachers, and we know it’s not going to be the salary.”
His hope is that, after the balance of his loans is forgiven through PSLF, he and his wife will be able to take the hundreds of dollars they spend every month on student loan payments and put it aside for their children’s college education.
“There’s your reward after all your hard work,” he says.