by Sean M. Spiller, NJEA vice president

With the conclusions of Teacher Appreciation and National Nurses Weeks this month, it’s important to understand the significance of the celebration of those who work in our schools.  When students, parents, administrators, community members and elected leaders say “thanks,” it’s more than just an acknowledgment for their work in the moment.  For our educators, it’s an expression of gratitude for their willingness to embrace a profession that continuously faces complex challenges, every day of every year.

After spending the last year dealing with COVID-19, remote learning, and tremendous political and social pressure to return to their classrooms, it’s not hard to see why a career in education may not be as appealing to those entering college.  Additionally, our country has been facing an educator shortage for some time now and that challenge is being exacerbated by the exorbitant costs of higher education, resulting in the student loan debt crisis that millions of Americans currently face.

To persuade college students to choose a career in public-sector work instead of the more financially lucrative draw of private sector employment, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program was enacted in 2007.  Nearly 10 years later, in October 2017, public service workers—including educators—first became eligible for aid. However, the program has been fraught with issues—with some pointing to the gross mismanagement of the funds under the Trump administration—and the vast majority of applicants denied. 

Watching a government-funded program fail is unfortunate.  However, when it failed to live up to the promises it made to those who agreed to choose a career path in occupations that Americans count on most, it became the proverbial last straw for labor unions—especially ones who represent public school employees.  For years, we have watched various administrations erode the public education system, and the thought of not being able to attract and retain the best and brightest for our nation’s students is unacceptable.

We know that student debt impacts our current members, our future members and our students.  We also know that student debt disproportionately affects people of color, adding it to the long list of social justice issues that must be addressed.  That’s why the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is taking action. NJEA, with partners from the Work Environment Council (WEC), New Jersey Communities United (NJCU), New Jersey Citizen Action (NJCA), NJ Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA), and NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) have formed the “New Jersey Student Loan Debt Alliance” which seeks to tackle the issue of student debt and college affordability. 

Additionally, our parent organization, the National Education Association (NEA) joined labor unions and organizations representing 10 million public service workers throughout the United States to send a letter to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to demand immediate action and justice for those who were unfairly misled by the PSLF.  Within it, Secretary Cardona was urged to immediately announce a 90-day review of the PSLF program, give public sector unions a seat at the table when discussing ways to improve the program and to cancel student loan debt for all public service workers who have served for 10 years or more. 

Moreover, we are urging President Biden to cancel $50,000 in debt per borrower through an Executive Action.  Canceling $50,000 for all borrowers would shrink the country’s outstanding student loan debt balance from $1.7 trillion to $700 million, as well as forgive the debt of more than 36 million Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for immediate action, and the relief loan forgiveness would bring a much-needed boost to our nation’s economy.

Public service workers who should have already benefited from the PSLF program are serving on the front lines of our pandemic response — caring for patients, teaching our students, and delivering essential services in communities across the country.  Let’s show them what the meaning of true appreciation is and ensure that our government keeps its promise to those who’ve chosen a career in these valued professions. 

Sean Spiller is the vice president and president elect of the New Jersey Education Association, representing over 200,000 teachers, educational support professionals, preservice and retired school employees throughout New Jersey. He can be reached at sspiller@njea.org

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