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Are charter school teachers eligible for loan forgiveness?

Posted at 7:53 PM, Aug 20, 2018
and last updated 2019-09-03 10:50:14-04

Imagine believing you're a few months away from getting rid of your student loan debt only to find out, it's not happening.

Math teacher Jennifer Gardner says that's the situation she finds herself in after nearly ten years of paying loans for her bachelors and masters degrees.

Even while still in college she planned to follow what was required to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).   

It allows public servants to wipe away certain student loan debt after 120 qualifying payments and meeting certain requirements.

For Gardner that meant teaching at a non-profit, public school that served students from families with lower incomes.

She did that by spending the majority of her career at Crestview Preparatory School, a charter school in Phoenix and jumping through a lot of hoops.

"Every payment you make has to be what they call a qualifying payment. So you have to send in your tax forms, your W-2s to make sure they know how much money you're making. So they can calculate your monthly payments based on that 20 percent, 15 percent of your income or whatever it happens to be," she explains.  

Another hoop is the employer certification form that Gardner says she had to submit to her loan servicer every year.

The form required she get tax information and signatures from her employer then "the student loan company comes back and says you're all good. This is a qualifying employer. It's gonna work. And then you just continue to make your payments to the student loan company."

Every year since 2010 she had submitted with no real problems until last year. 

"I started getting denial letters. So it said 'no your employer doesn't qualify anymore,'" she said. "What is it that doesn't qualify? I'm a public servant. I'm a public teacher. I teach math. Like how do you get more public service than that?"

Her employer no longer qualified because despite teaching at a non-profit school she says her checks, "are written by a company called The Leona Group."

The Leona Group is a for-profit company that manages charter schools around the country--27 in Arizona. 

Gardner's loan servicer says technically she works for them.

A recent denial letter explains, her paperwork has the tax information for the non-profit foundation that owns the school, not The Leona Group which manages it.  And "after further review and after consulting with the Department of Education, we determined that this approval was issued in error...as a result, we are reversing our approval...and revoking credit for any payments."

"To have been told for eight straight years I qualify, I qualify, I qualify, I qualify--and then to get a simple nope, sorry we made a mistake is a hard pill to swallow," Gardner says.

She says she used the information the school gave her, and someone needs to make it right.

"I have done absolutely everything that I'm supposed to do," she says. 

Gardner estimates she owes more now in loans than when she first graduated. That's because the program's income-based repayment plan barely covered the interest on the loan. She says she would have done things very differently if someone--the school or the servicer--caught this from the beginning.

"I loved the school I worked at, I loved the students, and the people I worked with. I might have made a different choice you know? I might not have stayed there for eight years," she said.

In a statement Crestview Preparatory School/Leona Group sent a statement saying: 

"We are aware of this issue and are doing what we can to assist our former employee.  The school at which this individual taught full-time is a public school that serves a free and reduced lunch population of over 80%. We believe that student loan forgiveness should be determined by the work the individual performs and the work location. Student loan forgiveness is an important benefit to public school teachers, and we are actively exploring options to ensure that our current and future teachers are eligible for loan forgiveness programs."

ABC15 has reached out to the US Department of Education to see if it will reconsider its decision concerning Gardner. We are waiting for a response.

Arizona is one of only a few states that allow non-profit charter schools to be run by for-profit management companies. Often these companies lease staff and teachers out to school. So how many teachers are potentially affected? There's no way to know. But it's a good idea to double check with your school and loan servicer to find out for sure.