Fracking the GAO Report on Teachers, Aid & Equity
March 30, 2015
The GAO released an important report last week on financial aid to prospective and current teachers who serve in areas of high need. It got zero attention. It’s not surprising given that the report is dense and obtuse even by GAO standards. The ledes are buried at fracking-level. But anyone who is interested in getting teachers to where they’re needed will find actionable information.
The key? Follow the money.
But first, let’s discuss the findings. Much of what GAO emphasized is not new:
- TEACH grants – that provide up to $4,000 per year in tuition assistance to students enrolled in participating teacher preparation programs who agree to teach in low-income schools and high-need subjects – have a 19% utilization rate.
- The Stafford Teacher Loan Forgiveness program – through which teachers that serve in low-income schools or high-need subject areas like math and science, or have expertise with English Language Learners or students with disabilities – can get up to $17,500 in forgiveness, has a less than 1% utilization rate.
- Grant conversion to loans. A third of TEACH grant recipients have not fulfilled service requirements and have had their grants converted to loans – what many call a “gr-oan.” This creates a burden on these students and fails to reach the program’s goals. This is, however, significantly lower than the Administration’s projected conversion rate of 75% (down from an earlier estimate of 80%).
One featured finding that is new:
- Of the 36,000 Teach Grants converted to loans, more than 2,000 were converted erroneously.
What comes pages later is that more than half of TEACH grants were converted erroneously because the servicer violated program requirements. If there is a perverse financial incentive for the servicer to convert illegally, the GAO doesn’t mention it. But it’s well worth looking into.
All of these issues make me fear that Republicans who already declared last week that they want to bomb education spending back to the 20th century will see these teacher financial aid programs as easy pickings, especially with the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization after the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
But that would be a huge mistake. First and foremost, there’s a ton of money on the table:
- About $600 million was allocated in TEACH grants between 2009 and 2014.
- More than 298,000 teachers (a number equivalent to 10% of the current U.S. teaching force) received loan forgiveness from the Stafford and Perkins Teacher Loan Forgiveness programs since their inception.
- GAO – inexplicably – does not give dollar numbers for loan forgiveness, but here’s a back-of-the-envelope estimate:
- $5,000 (the minumum amount of Stafford loan forgiveness) x 298,000 teachers (who have gotten forgiveness through Stafford or Perkins) = $1.5 billion.
It would have taken the GAO a few seconds longer to do something more precise than the 22 seconds it took me to do the above on the back of a proverbial envelope.
The Race to the Top Equity program in the Administration’s 2014 budget – which covered equity in everything from pre-K to college access – had a proposed funding level of $300 million and did not get a dime in 2014 appropriations. It’s frustrating that we have billions in real funding for teacher equity that people could be building efforts around but aren’t.
So, what to do? Let’s get the finger-pointing out of the way first. There’s plenty of blame in the GAO report to go around. Almost everyone is falling down on the job (including the GAO). For each set of players, it’s a question of priorities rather than capacity:
- The Department of Education (ED) is mismanaging everything from basic accounting controls to program performance standards to oversight of servicers to outreach and consumer service;
- College and university leaders made some valid criticisms. It’s hard to make sure students have good information about opportunities and responsibilities. But those commenting are supposed to be in the business of education and professional preparation. An ambitious program would seamlessly combine a teacher residency in a low-income school with TEACH grants and loan forgiveness. Where is such a thing to be found?
- School districts and teachers unions seem neither to be looking out for their best interests nor those of their workforces and members.
Here are two items I’d put at the top of the list for ESEA reauthorization:
- Simplify Requirements. It would be simple for Congress to make sure federal loan forgiveness programs don’t get in each other’s way. Stafford loan forgiveness, Income-Based Repayment (IBR), and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) all have distinct purposes. They are not duplicative, but they are too interdependent. You can read all about it on pp. 23-25, but long-story-short: choosing IBR affects potential Stafford Loan forgiveness amounts; and, teachers who get Stafford loan forgiveness are not eligible for PSLF.The rules are complicated and confusing. And they break the three inherent promises of each program. If we are serious about recruiting great teachers, we should not make them choose between cheaper monthly loan payments, capped forgiveness at five years, and erasure of debt at ten. It’s going to take that and a lot more. The easy solution is not to let participation in any one program affect eligibility in the others.
- Unleash Innovators. You can, as they say, legislate good policy but you can’t legislate behavior. Congress should try and figure out how to facilitate more responsibility and imagination on the part of those who should and could be doing more to make these programs work for their intended beneficiaries: teachers taking challenging assignments and students who need access to high-quality teachers.Mostly, however, teachers, high-need schools, and low-income students would benefit greatly from some fresh thinking and new energy. We can do this while also making more teachers eligible for these programs if we open them up to those prepared by entities other than colleges and universities.Unlike traditional teacher preparation programs (that have gotten hundreds of millions in direct federal funding through which they promised, but did not deliver, big change), many alternative preparation programs based outside of colleges and universities have direct relationships with the schools where their trainees are placed. Some schools and school networks also run the programs that train their teachers.
The Higher Education Act reauthorization offers a rare opportunity to do big things to compensate great teachers who take on challenging teaching roles. Anyone who cares about that should pay close attention and follow the money. If not, someone else may decide to take it off the table.
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