America needs teachers: A majority of the country’s most experienced K–12 educators are expected to retire in the next few years, while research suggests that thousands of others will likely leave the profession prematurely, citing job dissatisfaction. How to get more people to join the profession? A little more than a decade ago, policy makers came up with one idea they thought would help: Give teachers some extra support in paying off their student loans. So, in 2007, Congress tasked the U.S. Department of Education, which administers federal financial aid, with offering student-debt relief to recent graduates in public-service careers: Essentially, make your minimum monthly payments for 10 years and your loans will be erased.
Thousands of public-service workers—including teachers, nurses, and firefighters—have applied for forgiveness since 2017, when the relief went into effect, to no avail. Just 1 percent of applicants who say they meet the program’s ostensibly basic criteria have actually been approved, according to federal data, with the rest blaming misleading bureaucratic requirements that enable the Education Department’s contracted loan servicers to deny them the benefits. Now, teachers across the United States are suing the Education Department, alleging that its failure to make good on the loan forgiveness violates both their constitutional right to due process and administrative-procedure laws. (Liz Hill, the Education Department’s press secretary, declined to comment on the suit because it’s pending litigation, but noted in an email that the agency “is faithfully administering the complex program Congress passed.”)
The complaint—which was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., late last week by the American Federation of Teachers and a handful of individual public-school educators—is a capstone to the financial exasperation that, some advocates argue, has plagued K–12 teachers for more than a decade. They had counted on that loan forgiveness, they say, and planned their lives around it; its failure to materialize, the complaint’s supports allege, falls on households whose finances are already strained. Teaching, the complaint implies, is a financially calamitous path, and without loan forgiveness, teachers’ families face a lifetime of hardship.
Teachers have never been particularly well paid, but in recent decades their financial situation has gotten remarkably worse, mostly for two major reasons. The first is that pay has not grown, concludes a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, which finds that relative teacher wages “have been eroding for over half a century.” When adjusted for inflation, teachers’ average weekly pay has decreased by $21 from 1996 to 2018, according to the report, while that for other college graduates rose by $323. Data from the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which federal statistics are available, show that K–12 teachers on average earned about $58,000 a year. In states such as Oklahoma and West Virginia—whose teaching forces each staged massive, high-profile strikes last year—the average pay is less than $46,000. In many places, educators are earning less in real terms than they did in 2009.
And the second pressure is the costs: In those same years that teacher pay has stagnated, common costs for a teacher’s household—housing, child care, higher education—have gotten much more expensive. That’s especially true in certain metro areas—San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle—where housing costs have exploded. Though these places see their real-estate markets driven by entrepreneurs, tech workers, bankers, and so on, they still need teachers, of course. In some of these places, officials have considered establishing affordable-housing communities that would be earmarked for teachers. On top of this, it’s become more common in the years since the recession for teachers to spend their own money on school supplies: Almost all public-school educators these days report shelling out personal cash for classroom products, allocating close to $500 a year on average, according to federal data.