By Mary Ellen Flannery
Led by the National Education Association, 15 labor unions representing more than 10 million public service workers called on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week to immediately uphold the promise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) through the cancellation of student debt owed by public service workers with a decade or more experience.
The unions also asked for an immediate, 90-day review of the PSLF program, including an audit of every potentially eligible borrower, including part-time faculty who don’t currently qualify for PSLF.
“The PSLF program was created to ease the burden of student loan debt for a generation of teachers, nurses, service members and others who have chosen careers in public servers. After four years of scandal and allegations of widespread management, it is clear to our organizations that the federal government has fundamentally failed to deliver on this promise,” wrote the unions, which collectively represent teachers and education support professionals, university faculty and staff, firefighters, public health nurses and emergency medical technicians, and others.
The programs aren’t working. Since 2017, when the first public service worker became eligible for debt cancellation, an overwhelming 98 percent of applicants have been rejected. “And that is just the tip of the iceberg,” the unions wrote. For every applicant denied, countless others never applied because of misinformation and mismanagement by the previous administration, or because of PSLF’s overly narrow regulations.
Because of this, tens of thousands of educators and other public-service workers are still paying back on loans that they took out decades ago. Many can’t buy their own homes, replace their aging cars, or pay to send their own children to college. Meanwhile, the student-loan servicer contracted by the Department of Education (ED) to administer PSLF, FedLoan, is taking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
“No matter what we look like, where we live, or what’s in our wallets, all of us should be able to pursue our dreams at an affordable college or university,” said Pringle. “But today, the cost of college forces many students and families to forego their education goals or be trapped in a lifetime of debt. Rather than help people, of all races and classes, get an affordable higher education, certain politicians and student-loan profiteers have trapped generations in debt.”
“I don’t want to die with this debt.”
These public-service workers include people like Rhode Island special educator Pat Giarrusso, who retired last year after 18 years in a middle-school classroom. Even in retirement, Giarrusso is still paying toward the federal loans that financed her master’s degree in her 40s.
“I felt like I did everything I was supposed to do,” says Giarrusso, but her several attempts to get forgiveness have been denied—for reasons that she doesn’t understand.
At the most basic level, PSLF is supposed to work for educators and other public-service workers who pay toward their student debt for 10 years. More specifically, it requires public-service workers to have the right kind of federal loans, be in the right federal repayment program, and make 120 on-time payments.
Donna Chaney, a retired Nevada teacher, also has been turned down for inexplicable reasons. “I don’t have a problem paying it. I borrowed it for something I wanted to do,” she said. But it does bother her that the federal programs don’t work as promised.
The problem of student debt and mismanaged forgiveness programs cuts across all ages and all races, and means students and families either must borrow and pay forever or forego their dreams of higher education and decent jobs in education, healthcare, law enforcement and other professions. Nonetheless, race is a factor. Because of institutional racism, especially in housing and banking systems, Black students and families typically must borrow more for college.
“These disparities, they didn’t just magically appear. They are the direct result of generations of precise, intentional policy violence, is how I would characterize it, which has systemically denied Black and Latinx families the opportunity to build wealth and forced our families to take on higher rates of student debt for a chance at the same degree as our white counterparts,” Sen. Ayanna Presley (D-MA) said in a press conference last week, where she joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in calling on President Joe Biden to use his executive powers to cancel $50,000 in federal student debt for every borrower.
While campaigning, Biden committed to canceling $10,000 per borrower. While Congressional Democrats push for more, last week Biden’s chief of staff said Biden was considering his options around the increased number.
First, a 90-day audit
The unions, led by NEA, already have won a suspension of federal student-loan payments through 2021 as educators and others grapple with the pandemic. This suspension “presents a unique opportunity to deliver justice,” the unions wrote, “for those whose applications for PSLF should never have been denied, as well as those who have fallen through the cracks.”
Specifically, the letter asks Cardona to:
- Immediately announce a 90-day review of the PSLF program, including the audit of all possibly eligible borrower and the establishment of simple, streamlined criteria for all workers who have served their community for at least 10 years. This 90-day review should be completed before any action is taken to restart borrowers’ payments.
- Give public service workers a seat at the table. The administration must hear from borrowers who can explain how the current program has denied or derailed their efforts for relief. These include the deceptive tactics of student loan companies and the arbitrary decisions made by the previous administration and its contractors. ED needs to be transparent with borrowers and enable borrowers to help fix PSLF.
- Cancel student loan debt for all who have served for a decade or more. At the end of the 90-day review, all debt should be canceled for workers who have served their communities for at least 10 years. Those with less tenure should get a pro-rated credit towards PSLF. Loan type, loan status, or type of repayment plan should not affect this cancellation.
“We understand that these actions will require a significant effort by stakeholders across the Department and within the student loan industry. But so much is at stake,” the unions wrote. “We stand ready to assist you and President Biden in this effort.”
Email Education Secretary Cardona and tell him to provide relief NOW.