In 2007, Congress enacted the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Signed into law by then President George W. Bush, the policy was intended to help public employees—teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and more—manage their student debt in the face of increasingly expensive higher education costs.
Under PSLF, public employees who had made 120 payments on a student loan plan could have their debt canceled by the U.S. Department of Education. The program was an acknowledgement of both the untenable costs of higher education and the fact that public service jobs rarely afford people enough income to pay their debt off themselves. For qualifying workers, PSLF could save them tens of thousands of dollars.
The program has been in place for over a decade, but according to a lawsuit brought by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (a union under the AFL-CIO umbrella), current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has not been carrying it out.
The lawsuit, filed today, alleges that the education department “has failed to make good on Congress’s promise, denying PSLF to applicants on arbitrary and capricious grounds, without any meaningful process to review erroneous decisions.”
In other words, under DeVos, the Department of Education is reneging on its promise to public employees. In the lawsuit, AFT notes that the Department of Education has forgiven loans for fewer than 1% of borrowers applying for PSLF. Only 518 public workers have received PSLF under DeVos’s administration so far, and according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, around 32 million borrowers were making payments that could potentially qualify them for the program at the end of 2016.
This is not the first time a lawsuit has been brought against DeVos for allegedly failing to administer a loan forgiveness program: Just weeks ago, former for-profit college students sued the Department of Education and DeVos for delaying the approval process for a loan forgiveness program started under the Obama administration to protect students who had been misled by for-profit institutions’ education and employment prospect claims.
AFT is determined to use the lawsuit to call attention to PSLF and the need for applications to receive debt forgiveness. “This student loan relief program was not supposed to be an option—it’s required under law,” Weingarten said on a press call.
We reached out to the Department of Education for comment and will update if we hear back.