A waiver that makes it easier for public employees— including teachers—to apply for student-debt forgiveness expires Oct. 31, and advocates fear many eligible borrowers may be unaware they qualify.
Organizations like AASA, the School Superintendents Association, have encouraged educational administrators to publicize the deadline to ensure more school staff members participate.
“This is a huge opportunity for teachers to have a financial burden lifted from them,” said Tara Thomas, a policy analyst at AASA.
And, as districts struggle to recruit and retain employees, being freed of a large debt “could be a significant tool in having them stay,” she said.
Here’s what school and district leaders need to know:
What is this special loan-forgiveness flexibility?
The waiver in question applies to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which has faced criticism in recent years for cumbersome processes like proving employment eligibility.
The program is designed to forgive qualifying debt for borrowers after 10 years, or 120 months, of repayment during employment at public institutions, such as school districts, and some nonprofit organizations.
The waiver set to expire Oct. 31 temporarily allows borrowers to receive credit for past periods of employment related to type of loan, category of repayment plan, or employment verification.
For employees with 10 years of qualifying work, that could lead to speedy debt forgiveness, Thomas said. For employees with less experience, the waiver gives them a chance to “lock in” a period of employment under the looser rules. They can then fulfill the 10-year requirement under the original program regulations once the waiver expires.
Is this different from President Joe Biden’s debt forgiveness pledge?
Yes. In a separate action, President Joe Biden has promised to forgive up to $20,000 of eligible student loan debt for all Americans with incomes under $125,000. The U.S. Department of Education plans to release an application for that forgiveness in October.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program could go further, erasing all remaining student debt for a smaller pool of borrowers, which includes teachers and other public school employees.
Fifty-three percent of the pre-K–12 teachers and instructional support personnel it surveyed took out student loans to fund their educations, according to a report released last year by the National Education Association. More than half of educators who took a student loan still had a balance by 2021, with an average debt amount of $58,700.
Some advocacy groups and district leaders have pressed the Biden administration to extend the waiver deadline, giving school employees more time to see if they qualify.
“This is a matter of equity,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez wrote in a Sept. 7 letter to Biden. “Staff members will show up to their schools on November 1 with the same passion, work ethic, and empathy they had on October 31, and their financial circumstances will be the same as well.”
Fewer than 2 percent of public service workers in Illinois had their debt forgiven at the time of Martinez’s letter, he wrote, adding that many employees might not realize they are eligible.
A spokesperson for the Education Department did not respond to a question about requests to extend the deadline.
The agency has discharged $10 billion in loans for 175,000 borrowers since the waiver went into effect, the agency said in an Aug. 24 press release. And the agency has proposed long-term changes to the Public Service Loan forgiveness that “build on the progress” made under the waiver, that release said.
How can school and district leaders help?
Educational administrators can play a big role in ensuring their employees are aware that the waiver exists and that there are tools to help them navigate it, said Aoife Delargy Lowe vice president of law school engagement and advocacy at Equal Justice Works, a public service law organization. She has helped lead webinars about the debt forgiveness process for the PSLF Coalition, a group of organizations, including national teachers unions, that has promoted the waiver.
“In the education sector, we’re in the midst of a teacher shortage, and educational debt forgiveness may be one way to ensure individuals in this profession receive the additional support needed to continue their career as an educator,” Delargy Lowe said.
Chicago schools, for example, does weekly outreach to employees about the waiver, Martinez said in his letter to Biden.
The AASA created a template that superintendents can use to send similar communications to their employees.
As employers, school districts will also be involved in signing off on applications as part of the verification process. Administrators should ensure that process is speedy and accessible for employees, Thomas said.