- 15 labor unions called on the DOE to fully cancel student debt for public service workers through executive action.
- They cited problems with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, in which 98% of applicants were rejected.
- This follows Biden’s request for the DOE to prepare a memo on his authority to cancel up to $50,000 in debt per person.
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Student-debt cancelation was a major theme of the 2020 presidential campaign, and the issue is only gaining momentum. On Thursday, 15 of the largest labor unions in the country called on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to fully erase debt for borrowers who have worked in public service for more than a decade.
According to a letter obtained by Politico, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, led 14 other unions representing more than 10 million public service workers in calling for full student debt cancelation. The letter said the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has been so mismanaged that 98% of applicants for the program were rejected.
“The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for immediate action,” the letter said. “Public service workers who should have already benefited from the Department of Education’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program are serving on the front lines of our pandemic response – caring for patients, teaching our students, and delivering essential services in communities across the country.”
The letter, which was also signed by the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Government Employees, said the federal government has “fundamentally failed” public service workers because of difficulties in navigating the PSLF program.
To qualify for PSLF, a borrower must be employed by a federal, state, local, or nonprofit organization, work full-time, and have direct loans. However, a 2020 report from The American Federation of Teachers and the Student Borrower Protection Center found that due to poor communication from the DOE, only 1% of eligible borrowers were approved for loan forgiveness.
Democratic lawmakers have criticized Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ oversight of the program, and in 2019, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with other Democratic senators, wrote a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau requesting further information on PSLF oversight.
“Though one of the primary functions of the CFPB is to regulate the student loan industry, they have failed to adequately address these claims,” the letter said. “In particular, we are concerned that CFPB leadership has rolled back its supervision and enforcement activities related to federal student loan servicers. This suggests a shocking disregard for the financial wellbeing of our nation’s public servants, including teachers, first responders, and members of the military.”
Biden vowed to fix the PSLF program during his campaign, but given its mismanagement, unions want the DOE to use its emergency powers during the pandemic to carry out the loan forgiveness.
In terms of using executive authority, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on Thursday that Biden asked Cardona to prepare a memo looking into his authority to cancel $50,000 in student debt through executive action, which follows Biden’s request to the Justice Department to review his authority to do so. Warren campaigned on the issue of canceling $50,000 per person, while Biden set a $10,000 figure and he has since been repeatedly pressured to revise that upward.
Cardona has already acted to cancel debt for about 72,000 borrowers defrauded by for-profit schools, along with over 41,000 borrowers with disabilities. He also expanded the scope of the pause on loan payments to apply to 1.14 million borrowers with private loans under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program.
The DOE has not yet commented on the unions’ request.