Teacher Loan Forgiveness Leaves Early Ed Out in the Cold

It’s still weird for me to say this, but pretty soon,  my little brother will be a teacher. He’s not really that “little” anymore—22, and taller than me for some time now.  He graduated in May with a Bachelor’s in Physics and rolled right into a Masters of Teaching program at the same school; by next June, he’ll be ready to go in a high school physics class. It’s hard to comprehend the kid you shared a bedroom with and know for a fact ate crayons is qualified to mold young minds, but he’s good at his field, and he’s passionate, and we NEED that in classrooms.

Teacher and Student at Computer
By the U.S. Census Bureau (the U.S. Census Bureau Facts for Feature Photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
All of this explains what I was on the federal government’s student aid website (which, by the way, I found surprisingly aesthetically pleasing and pretty user friendly), researching what his options are for loan forgiveness when he graduates. Like myself and my older brother, college and grad school was on our own dime, and each of us has our own individual mix of federal and private loans. As a high school physics teacher, my brother can probably expect to make more money (eventually) that most other teachers, because it’s a field in high demand.

Perkins Loans, which are a federal loan available to students with significant financial needs, are eligible for full-cancellation for those teachers who teach in low-income schools or in special subject areas. Cancellation benefits phase in over a 5-year period, but start after one full academic year. Awesome! Especially if you’re a low-income student who received a Perkins, to knowingly take a lower-paying position in a school in a low-income area is admirable. However, these provisions do not extend to preschool teachers:

“Teaching at a Preschool or Prekindergarten Program
Your loan can be canceled only if the state considers such a program to be a part of its elementary education program. A low-income-school-directory designation that includes prekindergarten or kindergarten does not suffice for a state determination of program eligibility.”

If you were a student considering teaching pre-K reading up on these terms, you might think “Oh, well, I’ll just make sure that my state considers it part of elementary education!” I’m sorry to say that I work in early education and really don’t even know what this includes. Does it include the state of New Jersey, where our Supreme Court rules that pre-K has to be offered in low-income districts as part of children’s legal right to an education? Or to North Carolina, where legal rulings are protecting that program? Does the pre-K have to be located in a public school itself—sometimes tricky, since many public schools contract to other sites that are more physically capable of hosting a classroom for little learners.

While I’m somewhat interested in the answers to those questions, my more general point is: early education teachers, by and large, are not going to be covered by these discharge criteria. I think few state-funded pre-K programs would meet the definition of “part of its elementary education program.” It’s not going to cover Head Start where, again, we’re talking about low-income students who desperately need smart, eager teachers. Private early education centers wouldn’t count either. It’s worth noting that a “special education teacher, including teachers of infants, toddlers, children, or youth with disabilities;” would be covered.

My own Perkins loan was a small amount, but according to the federal government, students are eligible for up to $5,500 per year during their undergrad and up to $8,000 per year of graduate school. This is not an insignificant chunk of change we’re talking about here. Consider also that early education teachers are frequently paid less than their elementary school counterparts. Over at my day job, I’ve written about a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found the average pre-K teacher salary was $18,000, specifically excluded those pre-K teachers in elementary schools who would likely get coverage under the Perkins cancellation program. Allowing pre-K teachers, like so many other teachers, to cancel these loans could make a huge difference in bringing new talent to this crucial field. It’s simply removing a financial barrier that has been removed for other teachers.

We talk a lot in early childhood education about the need to professionalize the field. How many reports have you seen calling for higher degree requirements, higher pay to incentive teachers to pursue those degrees and enter the field, and increased supports to help teachers reach those goals? Findings in State of Preschool 2011found that only “seven states require pre-K teachers to have the same level of preparation and pay as kindergarten teachers.” When we set the bar and the payscale too low, we continue sending the message society has internalized: pre-K is not “real” school. It’s okay for kids to not have it, or to only have it half-day, or for programs to have to worry every year whether they’ll have funding or not. But in the early ed world, we know that the longer we continue treating pre-K like a luxury, the bigger price to pay later in a competitive economy where we can’t keep up.

Most teachers get into teaching for the love of it, not money; this must be especially true in early childhood, where pay is so low (also: spending all day with 20 4-year-olds. It takes a special soul to sign on for that). But teachers can only take so much. When Georgia cut 10 program days and teacher salaries along with it, many lead teachers left for kindergarten, where the pay and respect is better.  We’re essentially doing the same by keeping teachers out of this loan forgiveness program: telling them what they’re doing is not valuable.

Adding pre-K teachers into Perking cancellation eligibility is not the highest priority in the field right now, but it could make all the difference in the world to some students considering that degree in early childhood or child development. That’s good for the individual, for the economy, for the students that benefit from a well-trained teacher who’s a little less stressed about their personal life. But this is important symbolically: every time we say “teacher” with a asterisk that exclude early childhood professionals, we do a disservice to this field that already fights such an uphill battle.

The Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program for Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans and Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans does not specifically remark on pre-K teacher eligibility, but it does use the term “elementary school,” implying to me that the same restrictions may apply. Can anyone comment on that? Are their any organizations or politicians leading the charge to get this silly stipulation removed, and finally treat our early ed teachers with the respect they deserve?

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