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AFT Union Reaches Landmark Settlement with the Education Department

— October 15, 2021

AFT and ED reach a settlement in the public service workers’ loan forgiveness suit.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the largest teachers’ unions, its President Randi Weingarten, and the Department of Education (ED) have announced a settlement regarding loan forgiveness for public service employees (the PSLF program) and citing the agreement as a “landmark settlement.”  The legal case, Weingarten v. DeVos, was initially filed in July 2019 and its finalization will now “hold the federal government accountable for its failure to manage the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program,” according to the announcement.

“This agreement unravels the Gordian knot of PSLF’s implementation and shows the power of advocacy and collective action,” Weingarten said, adding: “It represents a game-changing victory for the millions of educators, nurses, public employees, and other AFT members yoked to crushing monthly repayments that have upended their lives.  And it gives muscle and teeth to the Education Department’s reforms to PSLF announced [this month].”

The PSLF program was put into place by Congress in 2007 and allows the government as well as non-profit employees with federally backed student loans to apply for forgiveness after 120 monthly payments under a “qualifying repayment plan,” as defined by the federal government.  In order to receive forgiveness, employees are required to provide proof of service.

AFT Union Reaches Landmark Settlement with the Education Department
Photo by Max Vakhtbovych from Pexels

However, being granted forgiveness has proven to be much more difficult than the government made it seemed, with some who applied going into unmanageable debt before it being granted and others not being offered forgiveness at all, even after they were able to provide proof of service.

A bipartisan bill was introduced in April 2021, which was designed to make needed adjustments to the PSLF program specifically for military members.  Congress, in 2018, gave ED $700 million to create the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (TEPSLF), a modified version of PSLF, and yet the number of individuals actually granted forgiveness has remained extremely low.

As of April 30, 2021, according to Federal Student Aid, PSLF had an “approval rate of 2%.  Only 3,458 out of 168,702 completed PSLF forms submitted met the requirements for loan forgiveness.”  At the same time, “TEPSLF had an approval rate of 3.4%, with only 224 forms out of 6,629 forms meeting the government’s requirements.”  The servicer tied to the PSLF program has projected only “22% of borrowers are on track for forgiveness in the next five years,” according to its records.

This settlement “represent[s] a redemption and redeeming moment for a Department of Education who under the last administration, refused to listen to the people who teach in schools, who nurse in our hospitals, who fight fires,” AFT President Weingarten said. “It’s clear that elections do matter.”

Debbie Baker of Oklahoma, one of the plaintiffs, said, “After teaching 18 years at a Title I low-income school for the job that I loved and paying on time year after year following instructions, I had to go home one day and tell my husband that the money we borrowed, now is twice, even though we had paid what we borrowed.  I just knew it was a mistake [but] I realized that nobody cared.”  She didn’t think she’d ever see this day, but her loans have finally been forgiven.

Baker said, “Honestly, this is just life changing, to be able to go to school to teach every day and not have to deal with the anxiety and the anguish and the guilt, and the feeling of just being trapped by debt that that I didn’t incur.”


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