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We have some exclusive reporting from NPR to bring you this morning. For years, the U.S. government has tried to entice promising college students to become teachers in schools that serve lots of low-income families. They've done this by giving them grants to help pay for college or for a master's degree. But NPR has obtained a previously unreleased government study that finds this program has been taking that grant money back from thousands of people, saddling them with debt, even though many teachers say they kept their end of the deal. NPR's Cory Turner and Chris Arnold co-reported this story, and we'll start with the voice of Chris.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: What's going on is what feels to many teachers like a bait and switch. These grants - they're called TEACH grants, up to $4,000 a year - this is supposed to be free money so long as you agree to do a couple of things.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Right. You have to promise to teach a subject, like math or science, for four years in a low-income school.
ARNOLD: It sounds like a great deal, but a lot of these people are getting those grants yanked away and changed into loans. Some of that's justified because they didn't end up becoming teachers.
TURNER: But in a new government study of the program, 1 in 3 people who lost their grant said they did meet those teaching requirements or were likely to, but their grants were still changed into loans.
ARNOLD: Loans that they now have to pay back. And it's a lot of teachers. The report estimates, based on a representative survey, that it's upwards of 12,000 teachers, and it could be a lot more.
MAGGIE WEBB: So without any notice, it was suddenly a loan, and interest was already accruing on it. So my $4,000 grant was now costing me $5,000, about.
ARNOLD: Maggie Webb is an eighth grade math teacher in Chelsea, Mass. We talked to her at her house, and she had her students' homework that she was grading out on the kitchen table.
WEBB: My day's over at 2:20, but I would say I spend an extra six hours or so working every day on either grading or lesson planning. So right now, I have a giant pile of papers.
TURNER: Webb got one of these TEACH grants, but after she started teaching, she ran into a paperwork problem. Teachers have to send in a form every year certifying that they're still meeting the grant's requirements.
ARNOLD: But the company that the Education Department hired to manage the grant - it's called FedLoan - Webb says they never sent her the form to fill out. Documents show that she reached out to the Department of Ed on time to ask for the form, and Webb insists that when she got it, she sent it in. But...
WEBB: They said they never received it. So I sent it again. And by that point, they said it was too late.
ARNOLD: Too late - that's when FedLoan converted her grant into a loan that she now has to pay back. To Maggie Webb, that just seemed ridiculous. She says she'd call up FedLoan, wait on hold for a long time and then tell them...
WEBB: I am working in a school, teaching math - a low-income school. So what was the problem?
TURNER: But that didn't seem to matter. The company wouldn't budge.
WEBB: I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. I knew I had done it right. And it was just - it was hurtful that they would do that.
TURNER: And lots of teachers feel the same way - betrayed that the Education Department gave them this money, and in exchange, they made life decisions about where to live and what to teach. And now, for no good reason, the government's demanding the money back.
DAVID WEST: I couldn't believe it. I was flummoxed. I was floored. I was pretty upset by this.
ARNOLD: David West teaches high school in Lexington, S.C. He, too, got a TEACH grant, and similar thing - one year, he had a paperwork issue. He fixed it and sent it back to this FedLoan company.
TURNER: But with him, too, West says, he was told it was now too late, and his grant had been converted to a loan. So like Maggie Webb, he got on the phone.
WEST: I'm like, what? You know, you go through, let me talk to your supervisor, blah, blah, blah. You could talk - and she said, you can talk to who you want, and there's also an appeals process, and you can try to appeal this if you want, but nobody ever wins. That's exactly what she said to me out of the gate.
TURNER: West exhausted his appeals. He even wrote a letter to his representative in Congress. Nothing's changed. Money he was given to become a teacher has now become a big debt for him.
ARNOLD: David West and Maggie Webb have now both signed on to a lawsuit against the Ed Department, and it's not the only lawsuit. In Massachusetts, the attorney general, Maura Healey, has been hearing from frustrated teachers there.
MAURA HEALEY: And for them to be actually actively sabotaged by a private company and our own U.S. Department of Education is just outrageous.
ARNOLD: Healey is suing FedLoan over its handling of this TEACH grants and another student loan program. FedLoan declined an interview but said in the statement that it does not agree with the allegations in the AG's lawsuit. And it says that it, quote, "remains committed to resolving outstanding borrower issues."
TURNER: These issues have been going on for years, but Healey says the Trump administration is putting up new roadblocks to stop states from holding these servicers accountable. Both the Education and Justice departments have instead argued that companies like FedLoan should be protected from state laws and lawsuits.
ARNOLD: A few years ago, the Government Accountability Office investigated the TEACH Grant Program and raised some early red flags. That's one reason that this new government study was done. And it's now found that for those people who had their grants taken away and converted into loans, a third said they either didn't know that they had to certify and deal with this annual paperwork or they said they found the process challenging.
TURNER: Another big factor in all this, though, isn't in the report. The Ed Department pays these companies, like FedLoan, just a couple of bucks a month per borrower. Ben Miller worked in the Ed Department under Obama and says...
BEN MILLER: If you don't get paid very much, and you don't feel like, hey, if I mess this up, the Department of Education's really going to breathe down my back, the incentive to let things slide gets pretty high.
ARNOLD: In other words, loan servicers and the Ed Department could be doing a lot more to fix these problems. In a statement, the Education Department says the results of the study are concerning. And the department says it will review changes that it could make to benefit grant recipients.
TURNER: The department also says it reminds people repeatedly to fill out their paperwork. For her part, Maggie Webb, the math teacher, worries she has no choice now but to keep paying this loan that she says she shouldn't have to pay.
WEBB: It just made me angry because I was working in a low-income school, and I still am. And I don't know why I'm being punished for that. This is something to help teachers, and instead, they're just kind of targeting them.
ARNOLD: Experts say, too, that these TEACH grant deadlines and rules are often punishingly inflexible. If you're late on your credit card or your mortgage, you might pay 40 bucks, not 4,000 or 5,000. But that's what some teachers say is happening here, and they say they have no recourse. For NPR News, I'm Chris Arnold.
TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEREMY KRINSLEY AND GREG HEFFERNAN'S "MATERIAL CULTURE 9.19.15, PT. 1")
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