If Teachers Work at Low-Income Schools, Should Their College Debt Be Forgiven?

In New Mexico, loan forgiveness is on the table for educators who teach in high-poverty schools desperate for strong teachers.

Children in high-poverty schools need great educators. Is student loan forgiveness the answer? (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Recruiting strong educators to teach at low-income schools in urban and rural areas is not always easy. The stress and commitment can be daunting for some teachers, especially ones who’ve only been in the profession for a few years.

A bill currently on the desk of New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez could give teachers that extra push.

Sponsored by Albuquerque Representative Sheryl Williams Stapleton, the bill would help teachers pay off students loans if they work in schools with low-income students or where student perform poorly on state tests.

It is not clear if Martinez, a Republican, will sign the Democrat-sponsored bill. In 2011, she vetoed the bill, also sponsored by Stapleton.

Many educators and organizations say such bills are needed in the United States

“While the Association of American Educators hasn’t directly surveyed members on this specific policy, our teachers are in agreement that we must find innovative ways to attract effective teachers to the profession,” Gary Beckner, executive director of the Association of American Educators, told TakePart.

Beckner said that according to the group’s National Member Surveys, more than 80 percent of teachers support educators being paid more for taking on additional roles and responsibilities in their schools. He said 79 percent supported educators being paid more to teach in high-need schools.

“This bill speaks to the heart of this issue and would provide teachers with incentives to fill high-need positions,” he said.

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Republican, recently signed legislation on a comprehensive education package, which included loan forgiveness to teachers willing to teach in critical-need areas. While many West Virginia education groups were against many components of the package, they did praise Tomblin’s initiative with teachers and loans.

“His loan forgiveness program will help us bring new, young teachers into areas of critical needs and shortage areas,” Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers–West Virginia, told local media. 

In Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish, education officials are recruiting nurses who excel in math and science to become schoolteachers. In June, the University Medical Center employees will be laid off after a partnership with another hospital begins.

Nurses with a bachelor’s degree can become classroom teachers within a year through an accelerated alternative certification program developed by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. They are encouraged to take out Perkins loans, a federal program that forgives debt if teachers work at high-poverty schools for at least five years.

South Carolina, too, is looking at ways to attract teachers to poor schools. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has proposed expanding the state’s Teach for America program, but some are criticizing that proposal. Critics say Walker should hire in-state teachers instead of inviting out-of-state teachers to Wisconsin.

For all the debate, the National Education Association warns that while attracting good teachers to high-needs schools is much needed, so is the ability to retain them.

“While NEA supports incentives and programs to attract talented educators to high-needs schools such as loan forgiveness and scholarships, we must also focus on providing a stable workforce,” Segun Eubanks, director of Teacher Quality at the National Education Association told TakePart. “According to the most recent Metlife Survey, maintaining an adequate supply of effective teachers is more difficult in high-needs schools than in other schools.”

Eubanks said that teachers entering high-needs schools need “special preparation for teaching, support from more experienced colleagues, and programs that offer opportunities for knowing students better—such as flexible schedules and advisory classes.”

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