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Education Department Plans To Fix Flawed Federal Grant Program


Now an NPR scoop - thousands of teachers had been hurt by a troubled federal grant program. Instead of grants, they've been saddled with big loans, sometimes $20,000 each. NPR's Chris Arnold and Cory Turner spent nearly a year investigating the situation, and today they have some good news. The U.S. Department of Education is announcing a fix for many public school teachers. Cory and Chris are with us now to explain. Hi, guys.



SHAPIRO: So before we get into the details, I understand the two of you actually had the chance to break the news to some of the teachers in this situation. Tell us about it.

ARNOLD: Yeah. As you'd imagine, they are pretty ecstatic.

TURNER: Yeah, it was quite a relief for many of them after years of frustration. One teacher in particular - she was actually in the very first story we reported on this back in March. Her name back then was Maggie Webb. She has since gotten married. She's now Maggie Spagnuolo of Massachusetts. She got hit with a $5,000 debt. And here's Maggie just telling us a little bit about what it felt like when she first realized she had lost the grant and now had this money hanging over her.

MAGGIE SPAGNUOLO: I freaked out. I was angry. I cried. I - anytime I called them, to be honest, I'd cry on the phone with them. It just didn't seem to matter at all. And the fact that I couldn't pay that as a teacher and I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and - none of it. It was just like speaking to a wall.

ARNOLD: So after we learned the details of this fix in the Ed Department which should erase these debts for Maggie and a lot of other teachers, too, we called her up, and we told her about it.

SPAGNUOLO: That's awesome. That's incredible news (laughter). Thank you for sharing that. Oh, there's definitely tears. I'm pretty relieved. I'm pregnant, so money's been an issue. So this is really nice to hear. Thinking not having to deal with debt is really exciting.

SHAPIRO: Wow, that's wonderful. Chris, tell us what went wrong with this program that was supposed to help teachers and left them with so much debt.

ARNOLD: Well, we should say that the goal of this program, it was and still is really, really good, right? The purpose was to entice promising young teachers to come and work in the most vulnerable schools in the country. And the way that it did that was to offer grant money so that these teachers could pay for their own college. And in exchange, they agreed to work for four years in schools that served lower-income families and to teach a high-needs subject there like, say, math.

And a lot of teachers did this. Maggie did this. Thousands of other teachers did this. But the problem was that every year, they had to prove that they were doing what they said they would do. OK, fine, that's no big deal except that the paperwork involved in proving that - that paperwork system turned out to be just a complete nightmare.

TURNER: Yeah, I mean, it's hard to overstate how problematic this paperwork was for teachers. I mean, we even found an internal memo from the department where the department itself calls this paperwork too complicated and confusing. The reminders were sometimes sent to the wrong addresses for teachers. Often the paperwork was due during the summer when teachers and their principals, who also needed to sign it, were on vacation.

But really, Ari, the most important thing you need to know about this paperwork is it came with a deadline every year. And teachers who missed that deadline or sent in paperwork incomplete, a missing date - even if they missed the deadline by one day, the outcome was catastrophic. All of their grants would be converted to loans plus interest that they were then on the hook for. And those were the rules of the program.

SHAPIRO: Wow. And after you reported on this, now the Education Department says it's going to fix the problem. So, Cory, what exactly are they going to do? How's this going to work?

TURNER: Yeah, so basically their message to all of these teachers who lost their grants because of paperwork issues - I mean, we talked to a number of teachers whose paperwork was literally received one day past the deadline. And they got no recourse.

So the department's message to these teachers is you now have the chance to retroactively prove that you were meeting the teaching requirements. As long as you can get a signature from your principal at this school where you worked for this year and this year and this year - if you can prove you met those four years, you're good. We will erase your debts. If you paid interest, we will refund you the interest. Also, for teachers who can maybe prove one or two or three years of service but not four, they'll have a chance to get back on track.

ARNOLD: And we should add there are two important caveats for any teachers out there listening to know. The program requires people to teach four years within an eight-year window. Sorry about all these numbers, but that is still the case. So if somebody's grants got converted years ago and they changed jobs and they're not in a qualifying school now, some of them might not be able to fit into that eight-year window. So that's one outstanding issue here. Also, this is not automatic. So teachers need to raise their hand and go through a process to take advantage of this.

SHAPIRO: How many teachers are we talking about here?

ARNOLD: Well, the numbers are a little all over the map, but safe to say thousands. There was one survey that estimated it's 12,000 teachers. There were 4,000 actual disputes that were filed, although that probably grossly understates the amount of teachers affected for various reasons. But definitely thousands of teachers were hurt by this program.

SHAPIRO: The Department of Education has known about these problems for years. As we heard, people were crying over the phone to them. Why are they making this change now, Cory?

TURNER: Yeah, I mean, I think it took a while because as we said, the problem was really the rules themselves. Once we began reporting on this back in January, you know, it probably helped that lawmakers started paying attention. Nineteen U.S. senators sent a letter to the department saying they wanted these problems fixed. At one hearing, lawmakers really pressed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But I think it's important to say honestly it really seemed to us like putting the voices of these teachers out there for people at the department to hear - that really seemed to hit home for some of the officials we were working with at the department.

ARNOLD: Yeah, and as they dug into this and realized I think how much it was actually hurting teachers and kind of saw the human face on this whole thing, basically they decided to act. And one of the people we've been talking with, April Jordan, she's a communications director at the department's Federal Student Aid office.

APRIL JORDAN: As the old adage says, when you know better, you can do better. And this is a situation where we know better and we can do better. And that's this moment now.

TURNER: And, Ari, one last thing we should make clear to teachers out there who are listening. If they're interested, they can find out more if they just go to our website, npr.org/teachgrant.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Cory Turner and Chris Arnold. Thanks for your reporting, guys.

TURNER: Thank you, Ari.

ARNOLD: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.