Teacher's union head calls DeVos handling of student loan forgiveness program 'a travesty'

The head of the teachers union suing the Department of Education is slamming Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosTrump aides pushed for states' ability to block migrant kids from enrolling in public schools: report Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid Buttigieg to Detroit audience: Don't judge Indiana by Pence and we won't judge Michigan by DeVos MORE, calling her mismanagement of the public service student loan forgiveness program a “travesty” and a “betrayal” to millions of Americans.

Randi Weingarten, who is president of the American Federation of Teachers, filed a lawsuit earlier this month against DeVos. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and is brought by eight union members along with Weingarten and the union itself.

“What Betsy Devos has done is a travesty and a betrayal,” Weingarten, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s handing of the program, told Hill.TV on Tuesday.

An Education Department spokesperson declined to comment, but called the lawsuit "nothing more than the typical political grandstanding from the union." 

The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007.

The program promises to forgive the remaining balance of federal student loan debt for graduates who have made at least 120 payments and work in a qualifying job for the government or a nonprofit. This includes teachers, firefighters and nurses among other public service workers.

Weingarten emphasized that the current program is in such disarray, that it violates both federal law and the Constitution.

“Why are they not actually saying, ‘wait a second’ — you paid for 10 years, we’re going to find every way to get your loan forgiven,'” she said. “Instead it’s obstacle after obstacle after obstacle.”

According to the Education Department’s own data, only 1 percent of the people who think they've made their 10 years of payments and apply for loan forgiveness are getting approved.

However, in statement to Hill.TV, a department spokesperson maintained that it has sought to improve its internal process and enhanced outreach by providing automated tools on its website to help people better navigate the program. This includes helping borrowers see whether their employer qualifies for the program and whether they are enrolled in an eligible repayment plan.

The spokesperson added that it has also actively encouraged borrowers to submit a form to access their progress in the program annually or when they change jobs. 

"The Department is well on its way to bringing the federal student aid programs into the 21st century," the spokesperson wrote. "Through this transformative effort—Next Gen FSA—we’ll, among other things, offer students, parents, and borrowers personalized communications and outreach through their preferred channel."

Weingarten accused DeVos of trying to help student loan service providers rather than the borrowers themselves. In October, the American Federation of Teacher filed lawsuit against Navient, which is one of the largest federal student loan servicers in the country. 

"Navient said in their motion to dismiss that it doesn’t matter what they say to borrowers like people who have taken out student debt because their contract is with the Department of Education," she said. "So they can lie to borrowers and nobody can actually have a remedy — that’s why we’re going after the Department of Education."

Weingarten added that DeVos isn’t the only one to blame, saying previous administrations could have taken action and made the program more transparent. But she said it's now up to Congress to act.

“At the end of the day, we have to help people who are paying $500 to a $1,000 a month and they want to be teachers, they want to be firefighters, they want to be nurses and so hopefully we can get some relief from the court,” she told Hill.TV. “But at the same time, we need Congress to make this more transparent and make it easier for people to do this.”

This is not the first time Weingarten has criticized the Trump administration over its handling of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

In an op-ed endorsing presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Panel: Jill Biden's campaign message MORE’s student loan forgiveness plan, she accused the administration of sabotaging the program.

However, she wrote that she was heartened by Warren’s proposal, saying such a plan would be “transformational.”

"Warren’s student debt and universal free college plan would be transformational — similar to the way the GI Bill completely altered Americans’ access to higher education," she said, adding that it is good policy for both working- and middle-class Americans but a step in the right direction for the economy.

⁠—Tess Bonn