#923: Good Teachers, Bad Deal

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Support for this podcast and the following message come from NCR who believes in small businesses. That's why they build NCR silver more than a point of sale, NCR silver delivers big enterprise management, tools, built for small business owners. Visit NCR dot com slash silver. Barry had lock is gone. And it is recording. This recording is the first time that Caitlyn McCollum talked to NPR. She was teaching Spanish at a public high school in Tennessee. Most of our students came from a relatively low income, rural community. I told them today that I had an interview with you all and. Many of them as they left class to good luck. Good luck miss McCollum. We really hope things, you know, are, are putting emotion from this interview. Back in college Caitlyn had made this deal with the United States Department of education. She promised to teach at a low income school for four years in exchange, the DO gave her sixteen thousand dollars for college free and clear not alone after three years of doing exactly what she said she would she got the letter? I remember going out to the mailbox even opened it up at the mailbox came inside and sheer panic just sat in the letter was about the deal. Caitlyn had made with the department of education. Yes, she had spent three years, teaching exactly where she said, she would, but there was a problem with Caitlyn's paperwork saying that she was teaching where she said, she would the government had allegedly received that paperwork to. Or maybe three days late, seemingly, not a big problem after all the got the paperwork, except as the letter explained in this case, the punishment was that the entire deal was now torn up and cancelled Caitlin was going to have to repay the department of education, every penny. They gave her back in college. I remember my husband coming in the house. And I was sobbing and just absolutely sobbing. And we actually had just found out that I was pregnant with our first child and then to be hit with this. I feel like it's so very unjust and unethical. But that there's nothing that I can do because I'm such a small fish against the federal government. Hello and welcome to planet money. I'm Kenny Malone. And for more than a year, two of our colleagues at NPR have been investigating stories like Caitlin mccullum's and discovered that thousands of teachers across the country made a deal to help struggling schools did what they promised. And we're to rewarded with millions of dollars of debt today on the show, the story of how the department of education turned into what many teachers felt was a ruthless predatory lender. Support for this NPR podcast. And the following message come from policy genius dot com, the easy way to compare in buy insurance online with policy genius, you can compare quotes from top rated carriers. Get unbiased advice from licensed experts and apply. Online in minutes, whether you're shopping for life. Disability home auto or renter's insurance, if you care about it, they can cover it compare and save on insurance today at policy genius dot com. Drag has been around for a while in the kabuki tradition in Japan in minstrel shows in vaudeville, but one TV show made it mainstream. Now. We breakdown drags current renaissance checkout NPR's. It's been a minute now. So how does how does this begin you get like a tip from a I don't know somebody in a trenchcoat would how does this go? It's sort of like that. So, yeah, I mean I actually got it encrypted message on my phone, it's kind of excited. That's pretty legit. It's trenchcoat I in a way this is Chris Arnold. He's an investigative reporter at NPR who covers consumer protection. Yeah. So, so I get this tip, and it's basically like their stuff worth digging into around the department of education and things that are going on. And that gets me to look at this lawsuit. I'm digging through. I see this mention of this program called the teach grant program and had you ever heard of this before. No, not at all. Yeah. And Kenny, I'm reading this lawsuit at the same time Chris's. This is Corey Turner. Also at NPR, also worked on this investigation, and I'm the education reporter and I do the same thing. I stumble across teach grant never heard of it. The teach grant program started more than a decade ago. Well, the members in the aisles, please take your conversations to the back of the chamber. Teach was just a small part of this Bill called the college cost reduction act of two thousand and seven it was sponsored by democratic Representative named George Miller for students who are excelling in college and want to teach if they make a commitment to teach in difficult public schools, we will provide four thousand dollars a year intuition, assistance, while they're in school, so perspective. Teachers could get up to sixteen thousand dollars free and clear if they went and taught at a low income school after they graduated. But if for some reason, somebody took that money, and then didn't go and teach like they promised. There was this provision that allowed the government to say, hey, listen. You gotta give us that money back. Yeah. That grant is going to become alone. Yeah. And that's totally reasonable. Right. I mean, because if someone said, yes, your man, I'll become a teacher, and then they go backpacking. What is the teacher in your universe? From fast times, ridgemont high. Like a fast times, it ridgemont, high type guy. I see who's like giving take sixteen grand. And then they just go screw off. Like, of course, the government's going to want. It's money back. But Corey, and Chris, after reporting out that encrypted trench Cody message at started to hear that this nuclear option. Converting the grant into alone was being used for the smallest stuff paperwork airs a missed signature filing a form a day late. So they started calling teachers who had had this happen. David, you're using your voice memo recorder right right up. Got it running right now. Excellent. One of the first teachers, they found was a guy named David west one day David also got one of those letters saying your paperwork was a couple of days late your teach grant is now a teach. Loan pay up initially my feeling was Shirley. This is a mistake. Surely this can't be that big a deal. Let me call them up. So he gets somebody on the phone, and he explains, like, hey, I'm teaching where I'm suppose. To can, we just get this cleared up? And the person is like, no, you were two days late, and technically we are now allowed to turn your grant into alone. And David is like what I was two days late on paperwork, and essentially the fine for that is that I now. Oh, thousands of dollars, if I had not done the job by I the money I did the job. They're, they're like loan sharks. I mean, I'm surprised nobody showed up to cat my knees. What abet again, David is not dealing with some shady, payday lender. This is a program, run by the United States Department of education. I couldn't believe it. I was floored. I think what you know you go through. Let me talk to your supervisor blah, blah, blah, you can talk. She said you can talk to who you want. And there's also an appeals process and you can try to appeal this if you want, but nobody ever wins. That's exactly what she said to me out of the gate. Wow. Really? Yes. I wish I had recorded that call. I remember thinking in the moment. As soon as he said that does that mean that the folks in this call center here this so often that, like they just not say it like sorry buddy, don't even bother. Yeah. And so, like, we start asking around, and we managed to get our hands on this internal report that the department of actually done on this teach program in in, there was the answer to our question of how many teachers have gotten screwed up like this? It was a shocking number. We have some exclusive reporting from NPR to bring you this morning. Frizz in Corey, ran a story about the internal teach grant reports that they'd gotten a hold of one in three people to lost their grants said they did meet those teaching requirements or were likely to the report estimates, based on a Representative survey that it's upwards of twelve thousand teachers and it could be a lot more. The department of education, wouldn't talk to Chris inquiry on tape for the story, but they did give this written statement the. Of said, oh, yeah. These numbers do not look good. We're going to have to look into this, that radio story ran in March of two thousand eighteen you know you do a store. You get some feedback on this one. It was like Twitter exploded Email inboxes exploded teachers saying, this is exactly what happened to be upset. Sad angry, so many people telling us, they got hurt one of those people was Caitlyn McCollum the teacher that you heard at the very beginning of this episode. More me get in your color groups for me awesome. Caitlyn. Of course teaches at a low income school in Tennessee, but the first time Corey, and Chris met her in person was on a student field trip to Washington. DC Caitlin was chaperone. They met up at this pretty noisy shopping mall food, court or Caitlyn explained how her family had built their life around her teach grants. Life decisions based on what kind of school you had to teach in because of these grants. Absolutely. We. Every year, it seems that we've had a different opportunity or at least option that we could have looked into had, we not been in this predicament to get a sense of how big these life, trade-offs were you just need to talk to Caitlyn's husband AJ, who also happen to be on this trip. Yes. The way that the grant would structured Caitlyn had to teach in AJ and Caitlyn moved specifically to a place where Caitlyn could fulfill her teach grant requirements AJ happens to be in the military and after they'd already moved AJ found out that he had qualified for flight school, which was. I mean obviously dream any anybody that's that's has any interest in the military. You qualified to be a pilot. That's, that's one of those things that it's surreal. So we had to look at that and say, well, we, we can't leave Caitlyn in AJ ran the math and unfortunately, for AJ it just made economic sense for them to stay where they were Caitlyn could keep teaching keep her grants, and they wouldn't get buried in debt AJ passed on his flight school dream. So that Caitlyn could keep her promise to the department of education. And then, of course, Caitlyn got that letter AJ got home from work one day and Caitlyn was in tears. She said I don't know what we're going to do. And I said, I said, I'll tell you we're not paying it back and she said she said we can't do that. And I said, I said, I wear a uniform with a flag on my sleeve. They're not taking our money. It's wrong. And that's that was the culmination of our conversation that night as you heard earlier, Caitlyn's paperwork. Was allegedly late by two or three days. But what we didn't mention is that it's not just the Caitlyn's entire sixteen thousand dollars in grants was suddenly converted to alone, the way, this is in forced is that the kind of go back in time and say, oh, well, actually these grants. Now they were always loans, and clearly, you haven't been paying down that loan because, of course you haven't because you had no idea. It was alone. But that doesn't matter. And so now there's all this backdated interest piled up. And so with interest Caitlyn actually now owed around twenty one thousand dollars and counting and for Caitlyn who was making around thirty thousand dollars a year that was a sudden massive financial burden. Sometimes I can go home week and not even think about this whole issue. And then I'll be doing something so menial like washing dishes or taking a shower. And then it'll just hit me like a ton of bricks like, oh my God. All of that money. And it still isn't fixed and what am I going to do? And it's like a knee buckling moment of panic all over again after the break how to try and fix a bureaucracy at a Starbucks support for this NPR podcast and the following message come from the United States, postal service, every day, innovative companies are reinventing the way business happens. But none of that is possible without the right people. People who get packages to over one hundred fifty million delivery, points, affordably, and on time with the latest technology and expertise who can help you deliver the future of commerce, the United States, postal service, see why they deliver more ecommerce packages to homes than anyone in the country at USPS dot com slash future. Hey, everyone. This is Stacey Vanik Smith. Co host of the indicator from planet money, where every day, we bring you a short story about the economy this week on the show, we check in with the protests. In Hong Kong, we go acts throwing and we talk with private firefighters in California. Check out the indicator from planet money. What Chris and Corey had found was this classic spirit of the law versus letter of the law problem, technically messed up paperwork, or whatever violated this deal that thousands of teachers had made with the government. But what really was that deal? It was to go and teach in a low income school. So, and Chris figured if they could just explain this to the right people at the department of education, surely, this is the kind of thing that could get fixed. So we set up this meeting with some officials at the department of Ed, and we get coffee. We go to Starbucks. We sit outside on the patio and Chris's flown down from Boston. So he's there in his snappy jacket that I have. You, you always wear the same snappy jacket a lot of this meeting was off the record. But according, Chris say they can share a general sense of the meeting. They told the sources about Caitlin McCollum. And what kind of teacher she was like this is this is exactly the kind of person you wanted going through this program? And now here, she is suffering, because of it, did it doesn't make any sense. It's not. Right. And so, I remember you just kept asking why, why can't you just fix it yet? Like the moment that I, I remember, like, you know, can't it just be as simple as if they're teaching in a low income school? They get the grants back because who cares about the paperwork stuff? Right. Yeah. And there was like a long pause and it kind of a shake of the head and feel like it was something like, what did you what was it was the with something like, well that would be nice. But you just don't understand catered. That is not that they necessarily. Disagreed. They were telling us we're not sure that's even possible. So Corey, and Chris, we're like, okay, I guess we will just keep doing this story, especially now that they had met the perfect example of how badly this could go. It's been two years of torture. Caitlyn McCullum is a high school teacher again for this story. The department of education would not do in on tape interview, but on the exact same morning that this story ran the secretary of education was scheduled to testify in congress about something completely unrelated to the teach grant program. Were you intentionally trolling the secretary of education by running a story about Caitlin the morning? The device was supposed to testify on Capitol Hill about other things. I think the honest answer is no, but had we like actually thought about it. We very well may have it's a privilege to welcome secretary DeVos for her first appearance before the education workforce. Committee, intentional or not it appeared to have worked because at least one house Representative or his staffer maybe happened to catch the Caitlyn story on NPR. It was the ranking democrat of the house, education, and labor committee, Bobby, Scott. This report this morning of the debacle going on with teachers will fulfill on the process of fulfilling their loan forgiveness requirements, technically not a loan forgiveness program, but close enough, Bobby, Scott. How long have you department known about that? Are you speaking of the teacher grant program? We are aware of the issues within that program and have taken steps to address the issues there in Geneva legislation to fix it. I don't believe so DeVos acknowledges. Yeah. We got this. That's basically what she says, we've got this. I mean, the question is, you know, is that just like a blow off, or is that no really we're committed? And at that point, we don't have any idea the department of education, had already announced a top to bottom review of the teach grant program likely in response to some of Chris, and cory's earlier reporting. And so they kept going they worked with a lawyer from the organization Public Citizen who'd managed to get hundreds of documents about the teach grant program under the freedom of information act, do you learn that the program is better or worse than you thought, you know, the finitely worse. About it is things just kept a peering. For example, Chris and Corey found this memo written by the contractor that the department of education had hired to kind of deal with teach grant program. This contractor was writing a memo to the department of education about the program. Basically, this memo says, you know, guys, we're actually converting to loans. A lot of teachers who seem to be meeting the spirit of the program, and maybe that's not such a good idea. Wait, they, they had found the exact same thing. You had found. Yeah. Basically, even this company is waving. His flag saying, please don't make us hurt these teachers and nothing happens. And then, Chris and Corey found that there was this whole other pool of teach Grint teachers as many as ten thousand who had mistakenly had their teach grants turned into loans by mistake. This isn't even the paperwork thing a. Drouet or anything. Right. And then that raise the question for us will geez what they do about it. Well, the answer is not a lot. But slowly over the course of like seven months, Korean Chris say that tone from their sources at the department of education just started to change from. We don't know if it's possible to fix this to we think this might be possible to we think we can actually fix this, and it kept asking Corean Chris, like, okay? But why did it change who changed it? Who was the evil person hurting? Teachers and Chris and Corey kept saying, no, no. It's, it's not like that. That's not always how these government meant. Well, but screwed it. All up stories go, I think, you know, one really important lesson for me and all this. We love our stories to have a villain. Yeah. And I think for the longest time I just assumed that the department was the villain or that the, you know, the company that managed the program for the department was the villa. On the must be making money off somehow, there's some kind of scam looked at all the angles like who's profiting off and people hear the stories and that's the immediate response to like, people will tweet out, you know, oh, this company must be getting rich on the back of these teachers, and corruption corruption. And the scary thing is this is this is twenty nineteen and the villain was bureaucracy. And it was a bureaucracy that spanned the Bush administration, the Obama administration and the first half the Trump administration. I mean and this just was this machine that was not being changed. You know, it was chugging along hurting people, the good news for me is that ultimately, that bureaucracy is made of humans. And if we just convinced enough of those humans to change direction and move toward a kinder, gentler program. It actually happened. Yeah. Finally, after more than a year, Chris and Corey got word from the department of education. It was top secret, but the deal was done. The department was going to agree that if teachers could prove they were and still are going to keep their end of the deal then the department would convert their loans back into grants. Again, this was not public information yet. But Corey, and Chris couldn't wait. They wanted to tell Caitlyn McCollum themselves so they asked a local producer to go over to Caitlyn's house. I'm gonna come on. Caitlin and her husband AJ, and this was back in December AJ deals with the dogs Caitlyn in the producer, Lexi sit down by the phone. So Chris, and Corey can talk to kaitlin. Yes. Like CNN sitting in my living room looking at my pine needles all over the floor because we put up our Christmas tree last night. I think we've got some good news here. Few actually. Okay as long as you can. Now, prove that you were still meeting the teaching requirements you're doing what you promise you do. You're gonna get your grants back. Are you serious? Oh my God. Sorry. I'm. That is such good news. That's good news. So I am and I remember Lexi, our engineer telling us that she, she went to the other room where her husband AJ was with their son, and they had a baby gate. And, you know, our story begins with her at the mailbox getting that letter, when, when she's pregnant, her son is now I think he's like to and as she's telling AJ that it's all over. We have to keep it under wraps until she's leaning over the baby gate on one side. And he's leaning over the baby gate on the other side. And they're hugging to go back to living life. Prior. You have both on at least I'm in here. But for. Throughout this entire like here of reporting, Chris and Corey had had trouble getting anybody from the department of education to actually record an interview on tape, but as the department of education, started to roll out this fix Chris and Corey got an interview, and in one of the most on brand moments of this whole story, the person chosen to be the face of this, so far, mostly faceless bureaucracy was a senior official with a spectacularly long title. Diana Jones is my name, and my title is principal deputy, undersecretary delegated the duties of under secretary, and assistant secretary for post secondary education and towards the end of that interview there is this kind of unbelievable moment, this thing that you just don't necessarily expect to hear from someone representing a bureaucracy. This is your chance to talk to a couple million people, many of whom are teachers, and I'm curious what would you say to them now about teach crash? How sorry we are. I mean obviously, we want to extend an apology we've put teachers who didn't deserve the stress this pressure. This financial burden in a position that is stressful. And frightening and confusing. And I can't give them back those years, and I can't take away the grey hairs, and I can't take away the stress. It, it, it seems like a small thing to do to say. I'm sorry. But I'm very sorry. And we want to work to fix it and correct it as of this story around seven thousand teachers have applied to get their teach grants fixed so far. The vast majority of those teachers have qualified, the find out ironically, the same way they found out everything was screwed up to begin with, with a letter in the mail from the department of education. Caitlyn McCollum got hers just before she was leaving on a family vacation. She brought the letter with her in the car. Her husband was driving. Her son was in the back. Z. Right. Here we go. That word see is this. Congratulations. Deers each grant recipient, you qualify to have your eligible loons reconverted to t- to grams. I like I don't know whether to cry or or like. Louis can you say? I love your dance moves, buddy. If you would like more planet money in your life. We are happy to tell you that we have a relatively new weekly newsletter. You can subscribe by going to NPR dot ORG slash planet, money newsletter. That is NPR dot ORG slash planet. Money newsletter planet money is edited by Bryant earth, stat. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, today's episode was produced by Alexi Horwitz Ghazi. And of course, it was reported by Chris Arnold and Corey Turner. And by the way, if, if you'd like to support planet money, one great way to do that is just leave us a review on whatever. Podcasting apps. You're using you could also Tele friend, you could send some of your favorite episode. You could just even help them. Subscribe to the podcast, any of that would be contested. I'm Kenny Malone. This is NPR. 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