With the state’s teacher shortage approaching crisis level, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer joined with educators and union leaders today in Rochester to urge expansion of student loan debt relief and more funding for recruitment and retention programs.
“We have to do this,” Schumer said. “We’re short of teachers as the school year begins … and the shortage is getting worse.”
The New York Democrat said Congress must force U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to spend all of the money allocated to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program the way the law was intended. “Secretary DeVos — who everyone knows is anti-public education — has spent only 1 percent of the PSLF funding, “ Schumer said. “One percent — that’s incredible.”
He said DeVos and her department have unfairly denied public service loan forgiveness to thousands of eligible public servants, citing a variety of shameful technical excuses.
UFT art teacher Kelly Finlaw is one of eight public and nonprofit employees to join an AFT lawsuit charging Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education with gross mismanagement and out-and-out sabotage of federal student loan forgiveness programs.
Schumer introduced Brighton High School physics teacher Adam Eck, who along with his wife Courtney, also a teacher, were denied public service loan forgiveness because they had consolidated their loans.
“We just kept getting reasons — one after another — saying why we didn’t qualify,” Eck said. “After 23 years of teaching, we still owe $140,000 in student loans and probably won’t be able to retire when we are eligible.”
Eck said the couple’s son, now a junior in high school, has said he wouldn’t consider going into teaching. “He says, ‘I don’t want to live in the financial world you live in,’” Eck said.
While it’s been a difficult financial road, Eck said he doesn’t regret the path he chose. “I love what I do,” he said. “I love the kids … those ‘aha’ moments. I can’t quit what I’m so passionate about.”
To help people like the Ecks, Schumer is calling for Congress to pass the What You Can Do For Your Country Act, which would expand and speed up the PSLF program for public servants. Under the bipartisan law enacted in 2007, borrowers are eligible for federal loan forgiveness after making 10 years of on-time payments.
In addition, Schumer is urging Congress to reject the administration’s proposed elimination of the Title II state grant program, which provides funding for teacher recruitment and retention. He said New York receives about $147 million under the current budget.
Schumer highlighted NYSUT’s Take a Look at Teaching initiative, which sounded the alarm on the looming teacher shortage two years ago. While more and more educators retire, enrollment in teacher education programs has plummeted, he said. He noted that according to Teach New York, a partnership between the State Education Department and SUNY, an estimated 40 percent of teachers leave the profession in five years. “Most of them leave, not because they don’t love teaching, but because of economic and financial reasons.”
NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango said the union wholeheartedly supports Schumer’s initiative.
“In the next 10 years, the state is expected to need 180,000 teachers,” DiBrango said. “That is a crisis.” NYSUT’s Take a Look at Teaching initiative has focused on elevating the profession as a whole and increasing the diversity of the education workforce. “We’re working with higher education and K-12 to remove barriers to entering the profession,” DiBrango said.
The union also strongly supports expansion of professional learning and mentoring programs. “Those Title II funds are essential to recruitment and retention,” she said. “If we are going to elevate the profession, we need to provide our teachers with what they need.”
Numerous Rochester area education leaders noted how the shortage is hitting virtually all school districts in a growing number of subject areas. Sherry Johnson, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association, cited severe shortages for sciences, languages other than English, bilingual teachers, Career and Technical Education, school psychologists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists. Mike Wischnowski, dean of the St. John Fisher College School of Education, added special education to that list.
“Our office has received calls from around the state,” Schumer said. There was one district that had an earth science opening for more than five months and not one person applied. Others are depending on long-term substitutes to fill the void.
“It’s now spread so even affluent districts are having problems,” Schumer said. “We have to act now.”