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?

Special Education: Stories Beyond the Data

Special education preschool has been a hot topic in the last few weeks. The New York Times been covering rising special education costs in New York City’s preschool programs and financial abuses in the program. In June, they reported that “a little-known special education program for 3- and 4-year-olds” cost more than $1 billion per year to operate, double the cost of just six years ago; services for 25,000 children with physical, developmental, and learning disabilities had increased to about $40,000 per child.

The article highlighted irregularities found within program billing; generally, private contractors provide services for these children and bill the city based on the intensity of services. However, according to the Times, contractors had billed the city improperly for non-work expenses and hired family for no-show jobs. Why has this become as large a problem in New York City?

“In most of the country, public school districts provide special-ed pre-K. New York is the only state that turns over the program to private contractors, many of which are for-profit companies. …The contractors often have a dual role: they evaluate children and identify disabilities, and then they deliver services, at costs that are higher than in other states, education experts said….Under this structure, contractors have an incentive to inflate the number of services children require, said Julie Berry Cullen, an economist who has studied special-education spending.” – The New York Times, June 5, 2012

The New York state comptroller has released audits in response to these allegations, and three cases have already resulted in criminal charges against providers accused of bilking taxpayers. In July, Times editorial called for closer oversight of the special education preschool program at the state level, charging that “[w]hen it comes to serving disabled children, every dollar should count.”

Kids who have special educational needs deserve those services, and it is especially heinous when public funds for these purposing are abused. Providers who defraud the system hurt families and kids, and the public’s faith in these programs. The last thing that families who need the special education system need is an additional barrier to fighting for their kids. A recent blog from my cousin drove this point home. My cousin and his wife have two wonderful boys—Bubs 1, who’s just shy of 4, and Bubs 2, who’s about 7 months (my math could be slightly off). In December, Bubs 1’s preschool teacher voiced concerns to his parents that Bubs 1 was displaying some autistic behaviors. Now that Bubs 1 has received an “official” diagnosis, my cousin offered a few reflections that really smacked me, as an early ed researcher so focused on aggregate data, right in the face.

By Ioannes.baptista (Own workhttp://www.aochiworld.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The System

“Most importantly, we learned how to advocate for him inside the public school domain. You would think that the public schools are on your side. They are, but when state’s make budget cuts, they take money from schools. Special education programs become unfunded mandates and school officials do what they can to limit cost… We’re ready to work with his teachers and continually update effective IEP goals.”

Ideally, families should always be involved and active in their children’s education, but families using the special education system have to always be on guard. Early intervention, diagnosis, and services are crucial to ensure kids like Bubs 1 get the services they’ll need to really thrive. The fact that his preschool teacher was able to raise a flag this early is remarkable, and wonderful, and needs to be the norm—but in the fragmented world of early childhood education and care, where so many providers operate outside of a clear framework, this is woefully uncommon. Special education is fraught with lots of good intentions and just not enough resources to act on them.

Family

“Bubs 1’s mom and I decided to tell our family about his condition early on (before the diagnosis). We listened to family and friends question the likelihood of the bubs having autism. Most of them all said the same thing, that Bubs 1 was just a normal three-year-old. Bubs 1’s mom and I eagerly agreed and, many times, second guessed it all (It was just what we wanted to hear too!).”

This, for me, is where the personal met the political. As a recipient of this email message to the family, it was an odd experience—I was so pleased to see my cousin and his wife being proactive and making this an open conversation though obviously regretful that the expectations they had for their three-year-old were going to need some adjusting. The struggles Bubs 1 may be going through, and so the struggles his immediate family may face, are nothing to be ashamed of, or that can only be talked about whispered and with euphemisms. Autism is incredibly common and yet still so misunderstood, as you can see from the reaction of the family—many of us (myself perhaps included) so instinctively wanted to ensure our loved ones that their son is fine and that nothing is wrong that we did them a disservice. What they needed to hear was that this could be a rough time for them, but that as wonderful and attentive parents, we had no doubt they were going to do everything they needed for their son. Everyone was going to be okay, even if “okay” now isn’t exactly what they anticipated. I’m still not sure exactly what the right thing is to say when a family is suddenly facing something unexpected, but we as a society have to get much, much better at talking about autism and special education openly so we aren’t saying the wrong thing and making things harder for anyone. So props to my cousin and his wife for being open about their lives, which can serve as a teaching moment.

Self-reflection

“At the official evaluation (diagnosis) meeting, I asked if I’ve made this situation possibly worse by not knowing about the bub’s condition while raising him at home. I immediately thought about all the times that I yelled at him or told him that he did something ‘wrong.’ I was concerned that I may have penalized him for something beyond his control. I may have, but I think all parents question their skills at one time or another. Still, I felt a sense of guilt that I may have worsened the situation.”

This would be a tough paragraph to read no matter who wrote it, but to read this from a family member is particularly heart-tugging. My cousin is a stay-at-home-dad and to think he may be beating himself up, when he and his wife have been so proactive and quick to respond to concerns, is heart-breaking. I shared this post with a friend of mine, a special education teacher, who actually got a bit angry at this sentiment. My point here is that every family is going to respond to an autism diagnosis differently, and on the micro level, we all need to do a good job of ensuring we’re standing by these families and not making them feel guilty, or bad, or as if they’re overreacting.

System-wide (which is where my comfort level is much stronger…), this is my major take away as a non-parent: raising children in HARD. Raising children whose development doesn’t quite match what you expected, or how your friend’s children are developing, or may behave differently than the cousins (and boy do we have many!) at family events is only going to be more complicated. I don’t think sympathy is the answer, because that can easily veer into pity, which isn’t helpful. But we could all benefit from empathy: how would you feel if your child needed additional services but the school district made it difficult? What would you want to change if you kept hitting up against these barriers? Empathy needs to beget action Seeing the numbers on diagnosis prevalence rates and per child spending are important to understanding the scope of these issues. But now and then it may take a personal experience to be reminded that these are children and families, and not just numbers, and that the failure of the system to serve them is a failure on all of us.