Unions demand Biden cancel student debt for public service workers

Labor unions are making a new push to get the Education Department to use executive action to forgive the student loans of Americans working in public service jobs — the latest pressure from the left for the Biden administration to act more aggressively on student debt relief.

A wide range of unions representing teachers, fire fighters, health care workers and government employees on Thursday called on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to fully erase the debt of borrowers who have worked for more than a decade in public service jobs.

The unions say the relief is needed because the Education Department’s existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has been plagued by problems and mismanagement. More than 98 percent of applicants seeking loan forgiveness have been rejected by the program.

“The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for immediate action,” the unions wrote to Cardona in a letter, which was shared with POLITICO. “Public service workers who should have already benefited from the Department of Education’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness (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.

The letter was led by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and signed by 14 other unions collectively representing more than 10 million public service workers. They include the American Federation of Government Employees; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; International Association of Fire Fighters; United Auto Workers; and Service Employees International Union.

Democrats for years have raised concerns about the difficulty that public service workers have had navigating the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. They sharply criticized Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ oversight of the program, which the Trump administration had proposed eliminating.

“After four years of scandal and allegations of widespread mismanagement, it is clear to our organizations that the federal government has fundamentally failed to deliver on this promise,” the unions wrote in the letter to Cardona on Thursday.

On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden vowed to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and he backed legislation that would expand the benefits.

Now the unions are pressing the Biden administration to go further and use executive action to swiftly provide automatic relief to public service workers. The letter says that the Education Department should use its emergency powers during the pandemic to waive any necessary regulations or laws to carry out the loan forgiveness.

But Biden has been skeptical of the notion of using executive powers to unilaterally write off federal student loan debt. Earlier this year, Biden said he would not take executive action to wipe out $50,000 of debt per borrower, as many progressives and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are urging him to do.

The White House has said that the president has not ruled out taking some type of executive action to cancel student loan debt, and his advisers are reviewing the issue.

The Biden administration over the past week has announced a series of “targeted” relief to federal student loan borrowers, though consumer advocates have criticized the policies as far too narrow.

The Education Department canceled the debts of some students who were defrauded by their for-profit college and waived some of the paperwork requirements to ease loan forgiveness for borrowers with severe disabilities. In addition, the department earlier this week halted collections on more than 1 million borrowers who had defaulted on federally-guaranteed student loans held by private entities.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Stratford is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. He most recently covered federal higher education policy and student loans at Inside Higher Ed, with previous bylines at The Associated Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. 

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