DAVID GREENE, HOST:
More than 2,000 teachers and counting have just had a mountain of student loan debt lifted off their backs. This 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 so-called TEACH Grants from the U.S. Department of Education to help pay their way through college.
Sounds good, but those grants, meant to be free money in exchange for service, were often unfairly turned into loans, sometimes upwards of, like, $20,000. In December, the Education Department proposed a fix. And now that has been expanded to reach even more teachers. Here are NPR's Chris Arnold and Cory Turner.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The trouble at the heart of this story is that small paperwork problems triggered catastrophic consequences for many teachers. The rules said teachers had to send in a form every year to prove they were teaching.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: But if they sent that form in one day late or it was missing a signature, a date, or any little problem, their grants were turned into loans. And that was irreversible. We've been following one teacher, Kaitlyn McCollum. And for her and her husband, that meant more than $20,000 in debt that they'd never planned for and couldn't afford on her small teacher salary in Tennessee. They also had a baby on the way.
TURNER: But with this fix, if teachers can prove they've been teaching, like McCollum can, they'll get their grants back. McCollum got her official Ed Department letter a few Saturdays ago. She opened it in the car as she and her family began a spring break vacation.
KAITLYN MCCOLLUM: All right, here we go. You see where it says congratulations? Louie, can you say yay?
K MCCOLLUM: Yay. Whoo-hoo.
A J MCCOLLUM: Yeah.
TURNER: According to previously unreleased numbers from the Ed Department, almost 6,000 teachers have now applied for help. And of those, so far 2,300 have been approved, and their loans are getting turned back into grants.
ARNOLD: And the department says fewer than 20 teachers have been denied. So the vast majority who apply for help are getting it. It's just taking time to process all the applications. Diane Aure Jones is acting undersecretary and acting assistant secretary at the Ed Department.
DIANE AURE JONES: From internal reports, from the work that you did, it was abundantly clear to us that there was a problem with TEACH Grants.
TURNER: It turns out Jones served in the same role more than a decade ago when the rules, known as regulations or regs, were first written.
JONES: We realized that there were certain things that seemed like a good idea when we wrote the reg. But they were just too cumbersome for students and unfairly so.
TURNER: And so beyond the initial fix for the teachers who got hurt, the department is now making other big changes, too.
ARNOLD: For example, the department has agreed that grants should no longer be turned into loans just because of late or incomplete annual paperwork. So once the new rules are finalized, this draconian penalty that's been at the heart of a lot of these problems, it'll be gone. The department is also committing to help teachers who had their credit hurt.
TURNER: Hanging over this process, though, has been one thorny question, what to do about teachers who lost their grants and then decided to change schools or quit teaching altogether.
VICTORIA LIBSACK: On the phone, honestly, I cried at one point because I was like, this isn't right, you know? It's not fair.
TURNER: Victoria Libsack taught for three years in a low-income Phoenix school. But her grants got changed to loans because of paperwork. When her husband got into grad school, they moved. And since she'd already lost her grants, Libsack took a job at a school that doesn't qualify.
ARNOLD: The problem is that teachers need to complete their required teaching service within eight years. So even with the initial fix, many teachers who changed schools, like Libsack, or who left the classroom, wouldn't have had time to finish.
TURNER: In February, Libsack came to Washington, D.C., to share her story with a government committee tasked with rewriting these rules.
LIBSACK: Living on a teacher's salary at a low-income school, I had just enough to live. I love teaching, but I felt overwhelmed and defeated when my TEACH Grant was converted.
ARNOLD: That rules committee heard Libsack and, in a surprise move, voted to expand the fix to include teachers like her. It's now resetting the clock back to when teachers lost their grants.
TURNER: That should give Libsack five more years to complete just one more year of required service. Yes, she'll need to change schools to qualify. And she says that's not ideal, but it will mean she doesn't have to pay upwards of $20,000 in loans.
LIBSACK: Now I'm feeling really hopeful.
TURNER: Not only that, she says she finally feels listened to.
LIBSACK: For me, as a teacher, it's awesome because then I can convey that to the students and say, hey, you do have a voice. You are citizens. Like, you have a role in our government.
TURNER: Now, the fix itself has had some problems. Many teachers have told NPR that some call center staff seemed unfamiliar with the new rules and that the paperwork they're sent, even after they got approved, is really confusing.
ARNOLD: Advocates also worry that the department won't do enough to reach out to teachers who need help. Patrick Llewellyn is an attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group.
PATRICK LLEWELLYN: There is relief available for these teachers, but they need to know about it.
ARNOLD: Overall, 94,000 teachers have had their grants taken away. It's unclear how many of those were unfair. The department says it is reaching out to teachers it believes may qualify for help. It also encourages teachers to reach out themselves. More details on that at npr.org/teachgrant.
TURNER: Diane Aure Jones at the department says she wants teachers to know the Education Department is now determined to make things right. And...
JONES: How sorry we are. We've put teachers who didn't deserve this stress, this pressure, this financial burden in a position that is frightening and confusing. And 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.
ARNOLD: For Kaitlyn McCollum and her husband driving off with their son on vacation, she's just happy this ordeal is finally over and that she has her grant money back.
K MCCOLLUM: Honey, two years of us fighting this.
A MCCOLLUM: You're free, baby.
K MCCOLLUM: I'm so excited.
ARNOLD: For NPR News, I'm Chris Arnold.
TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner.
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