By Mary Ellen Flannery
Originally published on neaToday

For many teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other public service workers, the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program means this: Someday, they will own a home.

“It means I’ll be able to save for retirement and my own kids’ college,” wrote Ohio art teacher Sarah McLain on a recent NEA Today Facebook post. “I’m just crossing my fingers the program isn’t killed off before I get there!”

The program has been targeted for elimination in the Trump/DeVos budget, which puts at risk the dreams of the 400,000-plus public-service workers who have registered for PSLF and have faithfully made scores of qualifying student-loan payments.

This week, alongside NEA’s Government Relations department, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) and U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) announced a new Public Service Loan Forgiveness Caucus on Capitol Hill, aimed at protecting PSLF from elimination. Calling PSLF an investment in our communities and in our future, Boyle called on Congress to “make good on our collective promise to public servants who have served their communities for years, often for low pay.”

These are people “working hard to make a difference in their community,” added Costello.

NEA also urges its members to use the NEA Legislative Action Center to call on their Senators and Representatives to support the caucus and protect PSLF from elimination.

“This is one program that shouldn’t be killed,” urged Pennsylvania math teacher Greg Cechak. “I won’t have my loans forgiven until 2022, but it’s well worth the wait.”

Making Good on Promises

Passed by Congress in 2007 and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, the 10-year-old federal program commits to forgive the student loan debt for some full-time public service workers, including teachers, firefighters, public nurses, and others. This October marks the program’s tenth birthday, and the first month that borrowers—who finally have made the program’s required 120 on-time payments—can have their balance of federal Direct Loans wiped clean.

It is not the perfect program, advocates agree. The mandatory paperwork is intensive, and the requirements are sometimes confusing. Nor does PSLF solve the underlying problem—the skyrocketing cost of higher education in the U.S.

Nonetheless, it has been an important promise to aspiring educators and early-career teachers, says Ashley Muscarella, chair of the NEA-Student program. “We’re not going into education for the income, we’re going into it for the outcome. We know we’re not going to make a lot of money, but still—we need to be able to live.

“For aspiring educators, PSLF basically means we’ll be able to make ends meet. We’ll be able to buy a house. Start a family. Maybe own a new car!”

The average American with student debt owes $30,100, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. But for graduates with master’s degrees in education, the average debt is $50,879, a 2014 study found, and it’s likely increasing. Between 2000 and 2012, there was an 82 percent jump in the debt load of education majors with master’s degrees, according to an NPR report last month.

Making matters worse, teachers suffer “the teacher pay penalty,” which means they don’t make nearly as much money as other professionals with similar degrees. In fact, teachers’ pay is 23 percent lower than other college graduates’. (Is it any wonder that the number of students considering making a career in education is at an all-time low?)

With all of that in mind, PSLF is an important incentive to attracting teachers to the profession and keeping them there, even as they struggle with their rent payments and wonder how they’ll send their own kids to college.

“As a school counselor, I’m required to have a master’s degree for my job, which means I owe a LOT of money in student loans. I am so thankful for PSLF because it means I have a definite plan to get rid of my debt in a reasonable amount of time so I can start spending on other things, like maybe owning a house someday,” writes Oregon counselor Sarah Wood.

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