So far, about 2,300 teachers have had unfair federal loans forgiven, NPR has reported—and due to rule changes by the U.S. Department of Education, thousands more could get help.
The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH grant, is meant to incentivize aspiring teachers to work in short-staffed areas and low-income schools. Teacher-candidates who plan to teach in a high-needs field, in a high-needs school, for at least four years are eligible for the $4,000 annual grant.
But NPR exposed significant flaws in the program, finding that due to paperwork errors, thousands of teachers had been forced to repay the grant money as loans, even though they were still meeting the program’s teaching requirements. Grant recipients had to complete annual forms to prove they were meeting requirements—but the process was confusing and riddled with red tape. If teachers sent in a form even one day late, or made any small error with the paperwork, their TEACH grants would be turned into loans, with interest.
More than 60 percent of teachers who received a TEACH grant prior to July 2014 were forced to repay the money as a loan, according to a government report.
Teachers were told there was no recourse for turning loans back into grants—until December, when the Education Department announced it would cancel the debt for teachers who could prove that they completed, or were on track to complete, the requirements of teaching for four years within an eight-year window.
See also: Four Things to Know About TEACH Grant Debt Forgiveness
And now, NPR has reported that the department is expanding the fix to reach even more teachers. Many teachers have said that after their grants were converted to loans, they took jobs that didn’t meet the program’s requirements. Even with the original fix, they would have struggled to complete four years of requirements within the eight-year window.
But now, the Education Department will pause the clock at the moment when a teacher’s grants were first converted into loans, NPR reports.
“We’ve put teachers who didn’t deserve this stress, this pressure, this financial burden in a position that is frightening and confusing,” Diane Auer Jones, the Education Department’s acting undersecretary and acting assistant secretary told NPR. “I can’t give them back those years, and I can’t take away the gray hairs, and I can’t take away the stress. It seems like a small thing to do to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ but I’m very sorry. And we want to work to fix it and correct it.”
Since January, nearly 6,000 teachers have applied for relief, NPR has reported. A third of those teachers have already been approved to have their loans turned back into grants. So far, fewer than 20 teachers were denied relief.
The department has also agreed to stop penalizing late or incomplete paperwork by turning grants into loans for future teachers.
Still, NPR reports that teachers who are going through the process to convert their debt back into grants have said the paperwork for the relief is still confusing—and the department’s call-center staff are not well-versed in the new rules. The department will also have to do substantive outreach to make sure that teachers know they are qualified for debt relief, even if they have already paid off the loans.
The consumer advocate group Public Citizen has said that the department isn’t going far enough to provide relief to educators. In a report relased in December, the group condemned the department’s regulations for the TEACH grant program, saying many of the requirements were “unnecessary ... cumbersome,” and the penalties “draconian.”
An attorney for the group told NPR that the department should be more flexible with teachers who had their grants converted into loans many years ago. Some of those teachers are no longer in the classroom, and they shouldn’t have to go back into teaching just to have their loans forgiven, the attorney said.
Read the full NPR story. And for teachers who might qualify for loan forgiveness, here’s how to request reconsideration from the Education Department.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.