Forgiveness Is Hard, Or, All The Paperwork I’ve Done to Reduce My Student Debt

Alright y’all, this is a money/politics/education post.  I don’t expect to get too ranty, but I’m offering fair warning in case discussing money/politics/education makes you uncomfortable.

So let’s start this story at the beginning.

Five years ago, when I landed my first teaching job at a school for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders, I started along with a friend who clued me in about the federal teacher loan forgiveness program.  These were the stipulations of the program: teach five consecutive years in a high needs area (either science, math, or special education) in a school or series of schools that qualify as having low-income populations, and at the end of that period you could apply to your loan provider to have $17,500 of your student debt forgiven.

That amount is worth a little more than half the principal on my grad school loans.

Now, my area of expertise is English education; professionally speaking, I am a total nerd about grammar and stories and writing.  If you’ll notice, English education is not on the list of high needs subject areas.  I originally started teaching in special ed because I graduated right around the time the 2008 recession hit the education job market, and there was a dearth of English Language Arts jobs available to someone with only student teaching experience.  My initial plan was to get a job, any job, working in a school where I could get connected with the educator community and eventually work my way into a job teaching the content that I wanted to be teaching.  Learning about the loan forgiveness program sidetracked that plan because I knew that I had to either stay in special education for five years or work as a math teacher, which I’m technically qualified to do although I lack any formal training in math education.  Given the choice between two areas that I’ve never been passionate about, I chose special ed simply because I already had a job that qualified and special ed teaching isn’t content specific, meaning that I would at least be able to teach language arts some of the time.

Flash forward to this year, and I’m getting ready to enter my sixth year as a special ed teacher.  My resume is split pretty evenly between time teaching ELA and time teaching math in that capacity, which makes me a relatively attractive job candidate for special education.  Since Rachael and I also just executed a months long plan to move across the country, I’ve not yet had an opportunity to work my way out of special education.  The hope is that we’re happy and stable enough in Portland that I can work on that goal over the next few years while I’m integrating with a brand new educator community.

Besides staying in special education, I also spent four years working at the EBD school.  I generally liked working there, but it was a stressful environment, and I was definitely suffering from major burnout towards the end of my fourth year.  Students with emotional and behavioral disorders are challenging to work with; they curse constantly, they’re frequently defiant when you give them simple directions, and when they’re in crisis things tend to get broken.  In the most extreme circumstances teachers can get physically hurt trying to help students manage their behaviors.  It’s a very difficult population to work with.  I loved my students dearly, but that’s not the sort of environment I want to work in again as an educator.  Earlier this summer when I was job hunting I actually ended up passing on an offer from a very nice school district to run the self-contained EBD room at one of their new middle schools because I didn’t feel comfortable going back into that kind of work.

Now, in a post that’s supposed to be about student loan, this long preamble does have a point.  I’ve completed all the requirements for my loan forgiveness, and so at the start of the summer, I filled out my paperwork and mailed it to my loan provider.

They rejected it.

The letter that they sent back said that I hadn’t gotten my administrators’ signatures within two months of my application date (I got one to sign off on my paperwork back around February), so I was going to need to get new signatures and reapply.  This was sort of a hassle, but I could understand the need for proper documentation, so I got new signatures and submitted my application again (this time by fax so I could keep my original paperwork in the event something else needed to be fixed; I didn’t want to deal with getting signatures a third time).

Again they rejected it.

The second letter said that I’d forgotten to fill out the name of one of the schools where I’d worked on the application, and more importantly, I had indicated that I had previously applied for loan forgiveness, which was incorrect (apparently).  At this point, Rachael and I were in the early stages of our cross country road trip, and my access to things like a printer and scanner were somewhat limited.  Fortunately, we were staying with my aunt, and she let me use her home office to correct the inaccuracies on the application and scan and fax it in again.

Again, they rejected it.

I only discovered this third rejection at the end of the road trip before we could move into our apartment.  The reason this time was that I had accidentally faxed the uncorrected page without the school’s name in my flustered rush to get this application business done with before hitting the road.  I fixed it and faxed it.

They (say it with me now) rejected it again.

The reasoning this most recent time is that I didn’t put my signature on one of the application pages, and I hadn’t submitted a complete application for each school where I worked.  Keep in mind that the directions on how to fill out this application are not very clear, and after four rejections, they never once told me that I should submit paperwork for each school individually beyond the basic information so they could check its eligibility in their database.  Also, they said, they couldn’t find the special ed school where I worked for four years in their database, so could I please provide proof that it was listed in the directory?

Now, in the past year I have had multiple fits and panic attacks at the possibility that something in my work history might disqualify me for this loan forgiveness program despite repeated checks and double checks that I’ve covered all my bases.  These rejection letters practically give me conniptions every time I receive them, and in this last one I’m faced with the prospect that the school where I worked for four years, suffered multiple injuries, had to deal with student deaths several times, and delayed plans to get into the content area that I really want to work in might not qualify.

I was a little upset.

Fortunately for me, I checked the directory that the loan provider uses, and my school is listed there for all the academic years that I worked for them; it just happens that it’s listed under three different program titles and none of them are what the school calls itself publicly (there’s this who public relations aspect to how a school refers to itself to students and families versus what it’s called within the broader education system).  I put a note explaining precisely which names the school could be found under for which years, filled out two complete, separate applications for each school where I’ve worked (with those administrator signatures that are still less than two months old!), and faxed the packet in.

Here’s hoping I don’t get another rejection.

So what I fully understand is the need to make sure the paperwork is correct; bureaucracy is irritating and exacting, but it does ensure that proper records are kept and everything is in order so that a person who hasn’t completed their service term can get part of their loans forgiven; the whole purpose of this and other public service loan forgiveness programs is to incentivize people to pursue careers that will put them in the public sector.  The monetary benefits of government work tend to be underwhelming, so you give people a chance to lighten their financial burden in exchange for the public service.  It’s a good deal as long as the loan providers are willing to go along with it.  I’m hopeful that in another five years I’ll be able to apply for full loan forgiveness in light of doing ten years of service as a public school educator (you know, assuming that the current administration doesn’t shut down the program just to spite another part of President Obama’s legacy), though I know that’s going to be a headache of its own.  There’s a rant to be had about the pigheadedness of government policy that’s designed to drive people away from public service and how that attitude creates a positive feedback loop where regular citizens don’t trust their government to actually do anything useful, but I figure that’s better saved for another time.

What irritates me though is that it’s clear that the loan provider (and by extension the federal government) want to make the process of applying for loan forgiveness as onerous as possible.  The going theory among my friends and me is that they think if they throw up enough road blocks then eventually I’ll just get frustrated and give up on trying to get that debt forgiven.  What they don’t seem to understand is that I’ve already invested five years of work into paying off this debt; my career trajectory has been significantly shaped by trying to meet the demands of the program.  Instead of pushing earlier and harder to get work in the area where I want to be working, I’ve stayed in special education, and I deserve the payoff promised to me for that sacrifice.  So if they send me another rejection with another reason, I’ll sit down, fix the application, and resubmit it.  I’m going to go as many times as it takes to get them to forgive that money.

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