A middle school art teacher who was denied loan forgiveness by the Department of Education is going to Capitol Hill Thursday to explain why she’s suing Secretary Betsy DeVos over the alleged mismanagement of the program.
Kelly Finlaw, who teaches in New York, couldn’t wait to apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which cancels remaining debt for public sector workers after they make 10 years of payments.
But when her 10 years was up in 2017, Finlaw’s application was denied because one of her loans was ineligible.
“If the PSLF program wasn’t meant for me – a teacher who loves her job, pays her bills, and comes from a family where loans were her only option – who was it meant for,” Finlaw is expected to say to members of the House Education and Labor committee, according to her prepared testimony.
“Teaching isn’t a career that garners much respect from anyone outside the profession, but this promise was validation that the work we do every day is valuable,” Finlaw’s statement reads.
Congress created the program in 2007, aiming to help teachers, social workers nurses and others to remain in lower-paying, public sector jobs while they paid down their student debt. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush, but the first time anyone would have made enough payments to qualify was under the Trump administration, during the fall of 2017.
DeVos has blamed Congress for creating a program that is difficult to qualify for. She also has proposed ending the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program for new borrowers, but lawmakers have continued to fund the program.
It’s becoming clear that the application process has been hard for borrowers to navigate. Just about 1% of the more than 73,000 borrowers who have applied have been granted debt relief, according to department data.
Borrowers have also blamed the loan servicers for poorly communicating the rules. Finlaw argues that although she inquired about the program repeatedly over the span of several years, she was never told by her loan servicer that she might not qualify.
The lawsuit Finlaw joined, which was filed by the American Federation of Teachers union in July, is different than a previous suit against loan servicing company Navient because it blames the Department of Education, which oversees the loan servicers it contracts out to handle loan payments.
Thursday’s hearing is meant to examine implementation of the forgiveness program. But the CEO of another servicer, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, refused to testify despite the committee’s invitation. The agency exclusively handles the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program for the Department of Education.
“As a federal servicer, PHEAA is strictly bound by the laws, regulations and guidance of the programs put forward by Congress and the Department; therefore, I must respectfully decline your invitation,” wrote CEO James Steeley in a letter to Democratic Committee Chair Rep. Bobby Scott.
Congress set aside $700 million to expand the program in 2018 to address the low number of people qualifying for forgiveness, but a government report released earlier this month showed that fix hasn’t had the desired results. Almost everyone who’s applied under this new process has also been denied.