STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have an update now of a story about a troubled federal grant program for public school teachers. It's supposed to help them. Many teachers have had grants unfairly converted to loans, leaving some of them with more than $20,000 in debt that they never expected. In recent weeks, 19 U.S. senators signed a letter to the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, citing NPR's reporting and saying, quote, "it is urgent that these mistakes are fixed."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, now we have learned that the problem is even bigger than we thought. The Education Department knew years ago that thousands of people had been hurt by this program, but the department did not help them. NPR's Chris Arnold and Cory Turner have the story.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: This debacle began with the best of intentions. The TEACH grant program was created at the end of the George W. Bush administration to reward promising future teachers for agreeing to teach high-need subjects, like math, in low-income schools.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: The reward was a grant, free money to help them pay for their own college or a master's degree. But the program has been mismanaged from the beginning, and a lot of teachers have had their grants unfairly taken away and turned into loans.
TURNER: It's like being given a gift for doing something good and then being told you have to pay for it.
KAITLYN MCCOLLUM: All right, guys. Can you team up for me? Get in your color groups. Awesome. Blue's good. Yellow's good. Orange is good.
TURNER: Kaitlyn McCollum is one of the teachers we've been following. She teaches high school in Columbia, Tenn. We caught up with her recently as she helped lead a troupe of school kids on a trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City.
MCCOLLUM: One of my students, I was absolutely thrilled when she said that Ellis Island was her favorite part of the trip.
ARNOLD: McCollum loves being a teacher, and she's doing what she said she'd do to keep her TEACH grants, teaching in a low-income school. But her grants were converted, anyway, into $22,000 in loans, money she now has to pay back. She says that's left her feeling really hurt by her own government.
MCCOLLUM: Anger. Frustration. Hopelessness. And, it's so unjust and wrong on all accounts.
TURNER: NPR's previous reporting found many teachers like McCollum have been unfairly hurt by this program, often because of minor issues with paperwork. If teachers send it in even a day late or missing a signature, it can trigger this catastrophic outcome where they owe all this money.
ARNOLD: That's sparked an internal review at the Department of Education, but now previously unreleased documents show that the mismanagement here is even worse than first thought. It turns out that the department has known about all this for years and done little to correct it.
TURNER: In 2014, the Obama administration ordered an audit of the TEACH grant program. It kept quiet about it, but we now know the results were remarkable.
JULIE MURRAY: More than 10,000 TEACH grant recipients had had their grants apparently converted to loans in error.
ARNOLD: Julie Murray is an attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group. She unearthed this audit through a Freedom of Information request.
TURNER: As she said, the department was told that more than 10,000 people apparently had their grants converted to loans in error, based on mistakes made by the program.
ARNOLD: But these documents that Murray got, they didn't answer one pretty important question. We know how many people appear to have been hurt by this...
MURRAY: But from there, the trail went cold. It's been a mystery how many individuals had their grants converted back after this audit.
TURNER: In short, did the Education Department ever fix this? What happened to these more than 10,000 people? A group of U.S. senators wants to know that, too. They recently wrote the education secretary, demanding an answer.
ARNOLD: Well, now NPR has that answer, and it's not pretty. According to documents we obtained from the department, the vast majority of people flagged by this audit received no help.
TURNER: The department confirms that just 15 percent - that's one-five, 15 - had their loans changed back to grants. That means 9,000 people who didn't do anything wrong got no help at all.
MURRAY: Those numbers are appalling. It doesn't appear that the department undertook a really serious effort to reconvert these grants back.
TURNER: The Ed Department sent each person flagged by the audit one letter in the mail. Some also received an email.
ARNOLD: But they didn't just say, hey, look, we made a mistake and we want to give you your money back.
TURNER: Instead, the letter says, quote, "your TEACH grants may have been converted to loans prematurely."
TURNER: Which implies that losing your grants is kind of inevitable.
ARNOLD: And this one letter was your only chance. It was on you. You had to respond and say, please, give me my money back. But the whole thing wasn't spelled out very clearly, and the vast majority of people did not respond. In a statement, the Education Department tells NPR that it, quote, "communicated with potentially impacted recipients," and, quote, "when requested, corrected the error."
TURNER: But, Julie Murray wonders, why wasn't this fixed automatically?
MURRAY: The department could have used an opt-out system. It could have contacted teachers and said that it and its servicer were going to reconvert these loans back to grants unless people didn't want them to.
ARNOLD: Again, these mistakes were made years ago, but now it's fallen to Education Secretary DeVos to fix things. Her department insists in a statement that it is, quote, "committed to improving this program."
TURNER: But even if this program is improved for future teachers, it's not clear what will happen to the many who are still stuck with big loans they shouldn't have to pay. Many teachers, including Kaitlyn McCollum, say the TEACH grant serves an important purpose, and they hope this time around they'll get their money back and the department finally gets things right. For NPR News, I'm Cory Turner.
ARNOLD: And I'm Chris Arnold.
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