Biden Ed Dept., Congress give Teachers, public service workers wins
Miguel Cardona, the Biden-appointed current Secretary of Education who replaced Betsy Devos, the Trump appointee who tried to destroy public education. | Susan Walsh/AP

WASHINGTON—Democratic President Joe Biden’s Education Department and a bipartisan coalition in Congress gave state and local public workers—notably Teachers but also including Fire Fighters and AFSCME members—two wins in mid-October.

And in the process, the workers also won out over anti-worker policies of the prior GOP Trump regime and particularly over teacher-hating union-hating public school-hating Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a GOP big giver.

The Teachers (AFT) scored the bigger, more public win. Biden Education Secretary Miguel Cardona settled a suit the union and eight teachers filed against DeVos. Cardona’s department will reverse her constant denials of public service loan forgiveness (PSLF).

The PSLF program, which Congress enacted in 2007, was supposed to help lure bright and creative college graduates into public service careers, by forgiving their federal student loans after a decade of service.

But forgiveness was left to department discretion. DeVos, who hated teachers unions and loved subsidizing private religious schools, retaliated with vengeance. She had political minions at the department reject 98% of forgiveness requests, no matter how merited.

Weingarten sued in 2019 on behalf of her union and its members along with eight of the teachers DeVos turned down. On Oct. 13, Cardona settled the Weingarten vs DeVos case out of court. The department forgave $400,000 in loans the eight teachers (combined) still owed—all have served more than 10 years—and Cardona reversed DeVos’s policy.

Now the agency will review DeVos’s other turndowns, through 2020, with an eye towards forgiving them, too. It’ll also close a hole in the program where public workers with outstanding loans often were duped into repaying financial middlemen whose firms didn’t meet Education Department loan standards, but DeVos’s devotees never told the workers.

The workers got stuck unexpectedly with more and longer bills.

“The AFT fought hard for years to make PSLF work for the borrowers it was intended to help. with this settlement we ensured a promise made is a promise kept,” said Weingarten.

“Congress pledged relief to those who dedicated their lives to serving the public, but 98% got a debt sentence instead. Today is a day of vindication for the millions of borrowers who took the government at its word but were cruelly denied through no fault of their own.”

“This agreement unravels the Gordian Knot of PSLF’s implementation and shows the power of advocacy and collective action,” Weingarten added. “It represents a game-changing victory for the millions of educators, nurses, public employees, and other AFT members yoked to crushing monthly repayments that have upended their lives. And it gives muscle and teeth to the Education Department’s reforms to PSLF.”

Some 22,000 loans forgiven

An Education Department fact sheet calculated 22,000 people who owe $1.74 billion combined will immediately see their loans forgiven. Another 27,000 “could potentially qualify for $2.82 billion in forgiveness if they certify additional periods of employment.” There could be up to 550,000 public workers overall eligible for forgiveness, the department said.

“For reference, just over 16,000 borrowers have ever received forgiveness under PSLF prior to this action,” it added. That last figure is the 2% who made it past DeVos’s blockade.

Other unions of public workers also hailed the win. The Fire Fighters pointed out another settlement angle that would help the workers.

“The Department of Education will establish a temporary period” until Oct. 31, 2022 “during which borrowers may receive retroactive credit towards the 120 payments needed for loan forgiveness during a waiver,” it said. The waiver will “authorize all prior payments from borrowers to count towards forgiveness, including payments that did not previously qualify.

“Borrowers who took advantage of the federal pause on student loan payments during the Covid-19 pandemic will receive credit towards the required payments as if they continued to make them, as long as they are still employed full time as public servants,” IAFF added.

“Public employees have been demanding help since the Trump administration broke the promise of PSLF, denying nearly 99% of applicants and refusing to fix the problem,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said.

“Instead, public employees who had given up more lucrative salaries in the private sector in exchange for student debt relief encountered a maze of changing rules, unreliable loan servicers, and zero accountability or assistance. The Biden administration’s actions will provide much-needed relief…and enable them to remain in public service.”

The other win came in Congress. Lawmakers approved and Biden signed a bipartisan bill to clean up paperwork problems imposed upon a specific set of teachers: Those who got grants—or were supposed to–in return for teaching in schools dominated by low-income kids. The House passed the Consider Teachers Act 406-16 on Sept. 28, after a short debate. The Senate OKd it by voice vote after none at all, five months before. Biden signed it Oct. 13.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., said “paperwork and administrative issues” led to 63% of grants from the 14-year-old Teach Grant program being converted to loans, “with burdensome debt.” HR848 sets up an Education Department process to change the loans back to grants and to prevent future grant-to-loan changeovers. Scott did not say whether the “administrative issues” were deliberate. The new law also “creates flexibility so teachers can still fulfill the grant’s requirements in light of school closures and disruptions caused by the pandemic,” he added.



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.