Asshole Loan Company Is Screwing Over Teachers And Betsy DeVos Thinks That Is Awesome
Bunch of troublemakers
You guys are not gonna believe this, but there's some seriously bad fuckery at the Department of Education that was not started by Betsy DeVos! (But it's also quite possible she's helped make the problem worse, which we'll get to.) NPR reported yesterday that a private contractor that administers an Education Department program designed to give grants to help fund teachers' college educations has been converting as many of one third of those grants into loans that the teachers have to pay back, with interest, even though the teachers have met the requirements of the program. How very odd!
The TEACH grants -- that's for "Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education," which really would be "TEACHE," but let's not get too hung up over a perfectly cromulent cutesy acronym -- have been around for about a decade, and offer students grants of up to $4,000 toward an undergraduate or master's degrees in education. If the recipient spends four years teaching in a school that serves low-income students, in a subject where teachers are in short supply like math or science, then that's a nice little boost to teachers who are doing much-needed work. Anyone who fails to meet those requirements within eight years -- say they drop out and found a software company or decide to teach art history at a prep school -- would have to pay the money back as a loan.
And that's where the catch comes in. You see, a whole lot of those grants are being converted to loans, even though the people who received them are dutifully teaching math or science or some other under-served topic in a low-income school. NPR obtained a copy of an Education Department report on the problem (later posted online by the department), and it appears the company that services the loans, FedLoan, has been playing fast and loose with the rules governing when grant recipients are considered not in compliance. Here's the audio version of the story for you public radio nerds.
To keep the grant from becoming a loan, grantees have to certify every year that they're in compliance, and send in a form showing that they're either doing the teaching or, if they're still within the time frame, that they intend to meet the requirements. Seems that FedLoan has taken that certification process to an absurd degree of besticklement, and if there's any error in the paperwork, you are out of compliance and you have to pay back your entire grant as a loan, no matter how well you're teaching biology or calculus to low-income kids, you fraudster, you.
Maggie Webb, an eighth-grade math teacher in Helsea, Massachusetts, ran into the FedLoan trap when the company failed to send her the annual form. She contacted the Education Department and sent off the completed forms in plenty of time -- like an efficient, organized math teacher would (you can see why English majors would never qualify, even if there weren't a glut of them on the job market anyway). Oh, hey, surprise:
"They said they never received it. So I sent it again," Webb says. "By that point they said it was too late."
With interest, her $4,000 grant was suddenly a $5,000 loan, even though she's meeting all the core requirements regarding teaching in a low-income school. And she has a hell of a lot of company:
According to this new government review of the TEACH grant program, Webb isn't alone. In fact, the numbers are startling: 1 in 3 participants whose grants were converted to loans said they were likely or very likely to meet the program's service requirements — or had already met them. Based on a representative survey, the report estimates it's upwards of 12,000 participants.
Another teacher NPR talked to, David West, who teaches high school in South Carolina, said his grant was converted to a loan because his annual certification form was missing a date and a signature, although he sent a corrected copy. Nope, the corrected form arrived after the deadline, and because Rules Are Rules, he owes bigtime. He thought that was a silly thing to do over a paperwork error, so he got on the phone to FedLoan, which surely would see reason:
"I'm like, 'Let me talk to your supervisor.' " But West says the person on the other end of the phone told him, "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."
The phone rep was right, too: Nothing worked, not even asking his member of Congress for help. Both Webb and West have joined a lawsuit against the Department of Education.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy is also suing FedLoan over its administration of the TEACH program. While the problems started, like the TEACH grants themselves, during the Obama administration,
Healey says the Trump administration is putting up new roadblocks that could stop the states from holding these companies accountable. Both the Education and Justice departments have argued that loan servicers like FedLoan should be protected from state laws and lawsuits.
After all, private industry must be free to make America Great Again without the constraints of burdensome government regulation. Plus, there are some perverse incentives at work:
Ben Miller, who studies higher education at the Center for American Progress, says these companies have very little incentive to put in too much effort — they get paid only a dollar or two a month per borrower.
"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," Miller says.
Spending too much time and effort fixing their own screwups would mean they make an even smaller profit, so actually helping teachers with paperwork problems would be bad for business. And the Education Department did tell NPR,
once grant recipients start their service obligation period, the Department sends them multiple communications reminding them of the requirement to annually certify."
It's all about personal responsibility, we guess, and also the wisdom of the marketplace, where, as NPR notes, a late payment on a credit card might get you a late fee of $40 dollars, but a late annual certification form for a TEACH grant could mean you're on the hook for $5000. It's a beautiful life lesson in government and capitalism.
Of course if any of these teachers flunked every student who turned a single piece of late homework, we're fairly sure their school boards would be hearing from some very angry parents.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.