Nearly 2,300 teachers have just had a mountain of student loan debt lifted off their backs, according to previously unreleased figures from the U.S. Department of Education. The move follows reporting by NPR that exposed a nightmare for public school teachers across the country.
In exchange for agreeing to work in low-income schools, aspiring teachers could get federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants from the department to help pay their way through college. But those grants were often unfairly turned into loans that teachers had to pay back.
In December, the Education Department proposed a fix. Now, that fix has been expanded, and thousands more teachers are likely to get help.
“We’ve put teachers who didn’t deserve this stress, this pressure, this financial burden in a position that is frightening and confusing,” says Education Department acting undersecretary and acting assistant secretary Diane Auer Jones. “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.”
Kaitlyn McCollum is one of the teachers who lost her grant money unfairly and, like many of them, her story began with a letter that sent her reeling.
Two years ago, the high school teacher in Columbia, Tenn., walked to the mailbox, pregnant with her first child, and opened an official-looking letter from the Education Department.
“I remember going out to the mailbox — I even opened it up at the mailbox — and sheer panic just set in,” McCollum says.
Her federal TEACH Grants had been turned into more than $20,000 in loans. The reason: McCollum had narrowly missed a deadline for mailing in some annual paperwork.
She walked inside, sat at the family table beside her husband, A.J., and sobbed.
Not only was this sudden, crushing debt unfair, McCollum later argued to the Education Department, she couldn’t afford to pay it on her meager teacher’s salary. And she didn’t understand why the department wouldn’t turn the loans back into grants since she could prove she was teaching, just as she’d promised. She appealed but was told her loans could not possibly be turned back into grants.