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And now an NPR exclusive story. One of the biggest teachers' unions in the country is suing the U.S. Department of Education. The suit alleges that a program designed to help millions of public service workers is in such disarray that it's illegal. NPR's Chris Arnold obtained a copy of the complaint, which was filed in court this morning. And he has this report.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: The program's designed to encourage people to work in public service. That's either government or nonprofit work, so nurses, police officers, librarians, teachers - all kinds of other jobs. Congress said more than a decade ago that, basically, if you make your loan payments for 10 years and you work in public service, the program will forgive the rest of your federal student loan debt. That sounds like a really good deal to a lot of people, and more than a million have filed official paperwork for the program. But...
CHRISTOPHER PETERSON: The Department of Education is - just cannot seem to get this right. They keep making mistakes and are not appropriately administering this program that Congress has created.
ARNOLD: That's Christopher Peterson. He's a law professor at the University of Utah and a former top attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And he may be understating things. Here's a number that you need to know - 1%. By the Education Department's own count of the people who think they've made their ten years of payments, and they apply for loan forgiveness, only 1% are getting approved. That means if you took all of the people getting rejected and got them together into one place, you'd have...
PETERSON: ...You know, football stadiums full of nurses, firefighters, teachers, law enforcement officers that are, you know, seeking to have their debts forgiven, having made all of these payments under the impression that they were on track, and are now - they're being turned away in droves.
ARNOLD: This has sparked a growing number of lawsuits, many against the loan servicing companies that manage student loans for the Department of Ed. But Peterson says this latest one ratchets up the pressure. Here's a teachers' union, representing 1.7 million members, suing the Education Department. Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and she says this program is hurting the very people it's supposed to help. And it's so broken...
RANDI WEINGARTEN: ...So broken that it violates our basic United States Constitution requirement of due process, the basic fairness clause of the United States Constitution. And that is the core of this lawsuit.
ARNOLD: OK. So to understand what's going wrong here, we're going to zoom in on just one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs.
DEBBIE BAKER: OK. Well, my name is Debbie Baker. I'm actually a music teacher. I knew that I had the correct employment. I mean, good grief, I'm a public school teacher. Oklahoma teachers don't make that much money, and they certainly didn't then. And I thought, this is great.
ARNOLD: So back 10 years ago, Baker says she looked under student loan statements, called up that 800 number and said, I want to do this public service loan forgiveness thing. That's what the Department of Education tells people that they should do. That number connects you to a loan servicing company, which the government hires to advise people with student loans and collect their payments.
BAKER: I called them up, told them I heard about it. And they explained that basically, you went on a income-sensitive repayment plan, and that after you'd made 120 payments, you could apply for the program. So it was that easy.
ARNOLD: Baker says each year, she'd call back, do paperwork. And she'd say, I'm working towards public service loan forgiveness here. Is everything good?
BAKER: I said, I'm qualifying for public service loan forgiveness. And they said, OK, great.
ARNOLD: Over the years, she dealt with different loan servicing companies. One of them was Navient, one of the nation's biggest. And as the 10-year finish line approached, Baker was getting pretty excited. And right then, she didn't have a lot to be happy about. Her adult son, in his 20s, had been stricken with a degenerative disease.
BAKER: You know, he was living at home with us on full-time care. We were caring for him. We'd put my mother in a nursing facility. And so this was a bright spot. Like, this is going to be great.
ARNOLD: But that $76,000 in student loans did not get forgiven because in the end, Baker was told that she was in the wrong type of loan. And so none of her payments over the past years counted towards debt forgiveness. If somebody at the call centers would have just told her that 10 years before, she easily could have switched into the right kind of loan to qualify for forgiveness. But she says nobody told her, so that never happened.
BAKER: And when this hit, I just - I didn't know whether to cry, throw up, get mad - I just didn't know what to do. I honestly did not think the federal government would do this to someone.
ARNOLD: The union's lawsuit alleges that lots of other borrowers got bad information too and also that servicers aren't keeping good track of how many payments people are making that are supposed to count towards loan forgiveness. The loan servicer Navient said in a statement, quote, "we understand the frustration borrowers face in navigating a complex federal loan program, which is why we consistently advocate for policy reforms to simplify the system." The lawsuit from the teachers' union wants the court to take more immediate action. Christopher Peterson.
PETERSON: They're asking for a court to order the Department of Education to go back to the drawing board and try to redesign this program to make sure that the public, that teachers, but also firefighters, nurses, police officers - that they're going to get a reasonable opportunity to have their debts forgiven as they were promised by Congress.
ARNOLD: The Department of Education is not commenting on the lawsuit yet. The teachers' union is also asking for an effective appeals process for people who believe that they've been treated unfairly. We should note that the Department of Education recently implemented a dramatic fix to a different program. It's called the TEACH Grant Program. That's now returning grant money to thousands of people who had grants taken away unfairly.
Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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