Thousands of teachers have been rejected for federal student loan forgiveness because they could not get the government to approve their work as public service, a key requirement for the long-troubled program, according to new data shared with POLITICO.
In some cases, educators were rejected for seemingly minor mix-ups, such as checking the wrong box or missing a date next to a signature. Others were rejected on the basis that their school did not qualify as a public service employer, according to the data.
The disclosure suggests further bureaucratic problems with the management of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which has come under fire from Democrats in recent years for rejecting more than 98 percent of all borrowers who applied.
Much of the controversy has centered on borrowers being rejected because they had the wrong type of federal loan or enrolled in the wrong repayment plan.
But the new data shows, in granular detail for the first time, how the Education Department has rejected teachers and other school employees even though there’s no dispute that teachers qualify under the law.
More than 4,500 educators at 2,700 schools or school districts have been denied as they seek to certify that their employment counts for the program, according to the data, which was was obtained under a public records request by the advocacy group Student Borrower Protection Center.
The schools where borrowers were denied are located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The data is fueling fresh pressure on the administration to make good on President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to “fix” the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has said that making changes to the program is a priority, but his agency has not committed to the sweeping debt relief for public servants that many unions are seeking.
Teachers unions said the new data underscores their calls for the Biden administration to cancel the debts of public service workers who have not been able to obtain Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
“This disturbing data shines a flood light on just how wrong, widespread and farcical PSLF denials have become,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers said in a statement to POLITICO. “It reveals how minor clerical errors can derail an entire application, handing a debt sentence to educators who’ve dedicated their lives to helping children.”
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, said that her union is calling on the Biden administration to provide “the immediate cancellation of all outstanding debt for educators with 10 or more years of experience — just as the Department of Education’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was intended.”
NEA and AFT are part of a coalition of public sector unions that have been urging the Education Department to wipe out the debts of all public service employees who have been repaying their loans for at least a decade but have been unable to obtain loan forgiveness under the program.
“Educators, nurses, firefighters, and all of our public service workers have held us together during the pandemic,” Pringle said. “Now it’s time for the federal government to keep its promise to them.”
The Biden administration has said it is considering executive action on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program in the coming months.
The Education Department is planning to rewrite the rules of the program as part of a broader overahul of higher education regulations. But department officials have also been soliciting suggestions on more immediate options to fix the program. The public comment period closes on Friday.
Democrats have also proposed to expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and make the benefits more generous. Republicans, meanwhile, have said the program inappropriately targets subsidies based on tax status, such as helping a nurse who works at a not-for-profit hospital but not providing the same benefit for a nurse who works at a for-profit hospital.
GOP lawmakers have also criticized the taxpayer cost of the program, which former President Donald Trump’s administration repeatedly proposed eliminating.
The new trove of data was released to the Student Borrower Protection Center by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which has for years operated the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program on behalf of the Education Department under the brand FedLoan Servicing.
The company’s data details tens of thousands of rejections during a preliminary step in the loan forgiveness program: determining whether a borrower works for a qualifying public service employer.
The data breaks down the various reasons why the Education Department rejected a borrower’s “Employment Certification Form.” It does not provide specific information about individual borrowers, but it does offer aggregate figures for each employer.
For example, at Chicago Public Schools, the data show, 31 employees had their employment certification form denied for a variety of reasons. They included a missing title next to the school official who signed the form, not correctly documenting a borrower’s work hours, and, most puzzlingly, a determination that the Chicago Public Schools was not a qualifying employer.
"As scandal after scandal is uncovered, it is clear we cannot afford anything but sweeping relief for our educators and public service workers,” said Seth Frotman, who leads the Student Borrower Protection Center. “This is not the time for half measures — it is time to cancel student debt owed by those who have served for a decade or more."
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