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Over the past decade, many teachers who got federal grants for teaching in the nation's most vulnerable public schools say they have had those grants unfairly taken away and turned into loans. NPR reporters Chris Arnold and Cory Turner have been investigating the troubled TEACH Grant Program for over a year. And in the wake of their report, the Department of Education is now rolling out a big fix. And now many teachers will get their money back. Here's Cory and Chris.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: This is a big break that could help thousands of teachers who got TEACH grants to help pay for college and then saw them turn to loans. When the program started in 2008, the intentions were good.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: The goal was to entice talented, young teachers into hard-to-fill jobs at schools that serve lots of low-income families. But the reality for many teachers has been a nightmare.
VICTORIA LIBSACK: On the phone honestly I cried at one point 'cause I was like, this isn't right. You know, it's not fair.
TURNER: Victoria Libsack was teaching English in Phoenix. The problem for her and many others is they're required to submit paperwork every year to prove they're still teaching. But this paperwork - it's badly written. It doesn't appear to have ever gone through a required government review. And sometimes the reminders to fill it out - well, they get sent to the wrong address.
ARNOLD: And there is no flexibility. If you are one day late with this paperwork or it's missing a signature or any little problem, that triggers a catastrophic outcome. Your grants - and these are grants; it's supposed to be free money - those get converted to loans that you need to repay, plus interest, and there is no changing this back.
TURNER: Libsack was told her annual certification paperwork was processed one day late and that she suddenly owed the government more than $20,000. She called repeatedly.
LIBSACK: I kept asking. And they're like, I'm sorry; there's nothing we can do. And I was just crying to them. Like, how is this even possible?
ARNOLD: Imagine missing your credit card payment by one day and the bank says, hey, your late fee is $20,000, and you have to pay, and there is no recourse.
TURNER: Well, that's what the government has been saying to teachers in some of the nation's most challenging schools.
LIBSACK: Teachers who work in Title I schools are passionate, and they are giving all of themselves. So to take advantage of teachers in this way - I mean, it's so unjust.
ARNOLD: NPR first highlighted this problem back in March, giving voice to teachers and revealing internal documents that showed the scale of this debacle. Soon after, the Education Department launched a top-to-bottom review of the program.
TURNER: Amidst continued reporting, 19 U.S. senators sent a letter citing NPR, saying the problems should be fixed.
ARNOLD: And today the Education Department says it is now going to do that, giving teachers a second chance to prove that they were meeting the program's teaching requirements.
TURNER: It doesn't matter if their paperwork was late or incomplete. Teachers can get a do-over.
CHRIS GREENE: We get focused on budgets and legislative requirements and things like this. And frankly I think sometimes we forget who we ultimately work for.
TURNER: Chris Greene is the chief customer experience officer for the department's Federal Student Aid office.
GREENE: We know these folks made career-defining decisions to do very noble work. We are absolutely supportive of it. We know we can do better. And that's what we're trying to do today.
ARNOLD: The Ed Department's going to reach out to teachers that it thinks might qualify for the fix. Documents show that more than 4,000 formal disputes have been filed by teachers. And that's probably just the tip of the iceberg. But communications director April Jordan says whether you hear from the department or not, the burden is really on teachers to speak up.
APRIL JORDAN: They need to raise their hand and tell us that they want us to take a look at their certification again.
TURNER: Over the past year, we've been following one teacher in particular, Kaitlyn McCollum in Columbia, Tenn. She's been teaching for six years and has met the grant's teaching requirements. But because of paperwork that was a few days late, she had her grants taken away and now owes more than $24,000.
ARNOLD: Which she says on her small teacher's salary in Tennessee is a crushing amount of debt. And it's stressed her out, made her resentful and defeated. And she says the feelings kind of haunt her.
KAITLYN MCCOLLUM: Washing dishes or taking a shower, and then it'll just hit me like a ton of bricks. Like, oh, my God, I owe all of that money. And it's like a knee-buckling moment of panic all over again.
TURNER: A few days ago, we caught up with McCollum after school. She and her husband had just put up their Christmas tree. And we told her about this coming fix.
ARNOLD: I think we've got some good news here for you, actually.
TURNER: As long as you can now prove that you were still meeting the teaching requirements, you were doing what you promised you'd do, you're going to get your grants back.
MCCOLLUM: Are you serious? (Laughter) Oh, my God (laughter). Sorry, I'm - (laughter) oh, goodness. That is such good news. Oh, that's such good news.
ARNOLD: Kaitlyn walks to the other room, where her husband, A.J., is playing with their 19-month-old son, Louie. She leans over the baby gate and gives her husband a hug.
MCCOLLUM: We get to go back to living life like we did prior. Thank you.
TURNER: The department doesn't want new teachers to go through what Kaitlyn did, so it will be giving them a lot more time to deal with this annual paperwork moving forward. And it will outline all of this clearly for teachers by the end of January.
ARNOLD: But it's not all good news. The original deal was that teachers needed to complete four years of teaching service within an eight-year window. And that's still true.
TURNER: Kaitlyn McCollum should be OK here. But Victoria Libsack, who we heard from earlier - well, she ended up moving after she lost her grants and now works in a school that does not qualify.
ARNOLD: So to erase her debts, the clock is ticking. She'd need to quit her job and teach another year in a low-income school within the next two years.
LIBSACK: I'm very happy that I at least have a chance to not have to pay back all this money. But it also puts me in a bad situation because, you know, this school where I'm working now, I've established relationships with kiddos and families and staff. And so now I'm going to have to rethink next year because I don't have a very big window.
ARNOLD: Libsack says she wishes the department would give teachers like her more time.
TURNER: The department could also expand its fix to help even more teachers next year as it continues to overhaul the program. For NPR News, I'm Cory Turner.
ARNOLD: And I'm Chris Arnold.
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