Tensions rise as Supreme Court prepares for high-stakes student debt clash
As the Supreme Court convenes on Tuesday to weigh whether the Biden administration can forgive billions of dollars in student debt, thousands of borrowers don’t plan to go quietly.
Upwards of 100 people were already outside the courthouse on a cold and rainy Monday evening, and groups will bus in many more as President Biden’s student loan relief plan, a major campaign promise, goes before the justices.
With sleeping bags and emergency blankets ready, Temple University sophomore Kayla McMonagle, a first-generation college student already $20,000 in debt, was set to be among the first in line for Tuesday’s oral arguments in two challenges to Biden’s plan.
“A lot of people think about our generation that we are not motivated to do things, we are always on our phones, always in our heads,” said McMonagle, a political science major. “But this issue impacts our generation the most so far, and it will impact our children’s generation and generations to come.”
As the arguments begin, organizers expect a crowd of 3,000 at a rally that will include members of Congress, borrowers and activists.
Decisions in the case are likely still a few months away, but the demonstrations come as borrowers are already bracing to hear the fate of Biden’s plan.
Coming from a low-income family, McMonagle said traveling to Washington, D.C., and missing midterms was well worth the trouble.
“I want to go to grad school. I want to possibly get a PhD. I love learning. I love being at school. I want to make sure that I have the chance to further my education. It will be amazing for me, life-changing almost,” she said of Biden’s plan.
She and several others plan to camp outside in the rain in the lead up to tomorrow morning’s “People’s Rally,” which was planned by more than 20 national organizations, including the NAACP, Debt Collective and New Georgia Project.
“The People’s Rally for Student Debt Cancellation is a powerful expression of our collective will to create a more just and equitable future. By coming together we can ensure that the voices of those most affected by student debt are heard and that policymakers are able to take action,” said Natalia Abrams, president and founder of the Student Debt Crisis Center.
The rally will kick off two hours before oral arguments begin at 10 a.m., when the federal government will attempt to fend off two groups of challengers to the debt relief plan: six Republican-led states and two individual borrowers who did not qualify for the full $20,000 in relief.
Both groups contend the Biden administration overstepped its authority, but the case could also hinge on whether the justices believe the challengers have legal standing.
Kicking off the campout as the sun set on Monday, Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), the first Generation Z member of Congress, told the largely young crowd that they were who the country needed.
“I’m optimistic because I need to be, but I mean, we’ve seen the court come up with some disastrous decisions over the, obviously, the past year,” Frost said in an interview after his speech. “And so I hold optimism because we have to in this moment, and I’m hoping they won’t let us down. But I mean, we’ll see.”
Frost was one of a handful of Democratic lawmakers to join the demonstrators in front of the court building.
“Education is a key to racial and economic justice for so many Americans, yet it remains locked in an ivory tower,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) later told the crowd.
Those protesting say they represent the 44 million student loan borrowers who will be impacted by these oral arguments and the court’s decision in these cases.
Mykeisha Wells, a University of Michigan graduate student more than $60,000 in debt who attended Monday night’s rally, said it marked the first time she had taken part in a political demonstration.
“Relieving up to $20,000 in debt is really significant for me, thinking about the future that I want to have: buying a house, creating generational wealth for my children,” Wells said.
The support for the student debt relief has largely been divided along partisan lines, with Democrats energetic for the cause and Republicans deeming the relief as unfair.
In a poll last August after Biden announced his plan, 80 percent of Democrats said they supported it, while 71 percent of Republicans were opposed.
“Tens of millions of Americans are counting on President Biden to swiftly deliver the financial relief they were promised and already approved for,” said Braxton Brewington, spokesperson for the Debt Collective.
“There’s no sound legal reasoning for the Supreme Court to knock down relief, but should they overstep, Biden needs to use other legal tools at his disposal to deliver relief,” he continued. “Trillions of dollars in student debt is a massive weight dragging borrowers down — that’s why we’re showing up to the court in droves.”
Republicans have gone on the attack, arguing it’s not right to use taxpayer money from individuals who never went to school or already paid off their debts to relieve others’ debts. The GOP also argues the plan does not help the root cause of high college debt: college tuition prices.
Democrats say the relief would be a great help to millions of middle- and lower-class Americans who struggle to pay their student loan debt every month. Its success would also fulfill one of Biden’s major campaign promises.
“We are going to keep pushing and applying pressure after oral arguments are over and once we get a decision. One does not stop here,” said Maggie Bell, lead organizer for the New Georgia Project, one of the groups organizing Tuesday’s demonstrations. “Ten-thousand dollars or $20,000 of cancellation and relief is helpful but it does not fulfill our demand, right. And so we see this as the first step. But we are definitely going to keep applying pressure on leaders.”
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