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NEA News

How Did an NEA Member Get $103,000 in Student Debt Erased?

With the help of NEA, music teacher Sean Ichiro Manes navigated federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that needs improving.
Published: August 24, 2020

The story of Sean Ichiro Manes, a New Jersey elementary music teacher who scaled mountains of anti-educator bureaucracy in Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education (ED) to finally win Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) after nearly 11 years of paying on his federal student loan debt, is a portrait in persistence.

For the past years, as Manes paid on his loans—more than $700 a month this year—he doggedly chased FedLoan Servicing, the scandal-plagued private company that runs the loan forgiveness program for the Trump/DeVos administration. Last year, after his own public-records requests were repeatedly ignored, he got the help of Sen. Cory Booker’s office to wrest records of his payments out of the federal fog.

This year, when FedLoan still refused to acknowledge his qualification for PSLF, he brought in the big guns: NEA’s Office of General Counsel.

For months, NEA attorneys pursued Manes’ case for PSLF with passion and know-how, telling Manes that they had his back and absolutely would not give it up.

“The obstacles and delays had gone on long enough,” says NEA attorney Eric Harrington, “and that is why we were prepared to sue on Sean’s behalf.”

This month, Manes got the good news in a white envelope with a Washington, D.C., postmark: Not only was his federal student loan balance forgiven, but FedLoan was returning the payments that Manes was forced to make while the agency dragged its feet.

The balance forgiven? $103,464.64.

The payments refunded? $7,958.73.

“Relief!” exclaims Manes.

NEA: Fighting to Improve PSLF

Established by Congress in 2007, PSLF is a promise to public-service workers.

Basically it says we know you aren’t paid fairly for the jobs you do—jobs that are essential to a well-functioning society—and we know you likely borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the higher education that these jobs require. So, here’s the promise: Do those jobs for at least 10 years and make 120 on-time student loan payments, and then the U.S. Department of Education will forgive the balance of your federal loan debt.

It’s one answer to the national teacher shortage, especially for Black and Hispanic teachers who borrow disproportionately to pay for college and are under-represented in public schools across the U.S. (Another answer? Pay teachers more! New teachers make $39,491 a year, on average. They also borrow an average $50,879 to get their master’s degrees in education.)

But the promise of PSLF is unfulfilled. The original PSLF was rigid, rejecting applicants for arcane, uncommunicated reasons. In 2018, Congress stepped in to fix it, establishing the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (TEPSLF) program and funding it with $700 million.

Problems still persist: a 2019 report from the government’s watchdog agency found that FedLoan rejected 99 percent of TEPSLF applicants in its first year, and spent just $27 million of the $700 million. In June 2020, the California attorney general filed a lawsuit, saying DeVos’ agency has failed to implement TEPSLF. Other PSLF-related lawsuits include one filed by New York in 2019 and one that the ED settled with the American Bar Association in February.

You shouldn’t need a law degree to figure this out,” Pennsylvania sixth-grade teacher Greg Cechak told NEA Education Votes. “But it seems like whoever is reviewing your application one day could make one choice, and if somebody different reviewed it the next day they might make a different choice.”

Lawmakers remain frustrated: “The students are entitled to [forgiveness.] They have fulfilled their responsibility over a decade of public service, and they’re entitled by law to have those loans discharged,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) last year.

NEA members agree, and that’s why they continue to press on Capitol Hill to improve PSLF and Teacher Loan Forgiveness (TLF), a more modest alternative for teachers in low-income schools or hard-to-staff subjects. Although recent pandemic-relief measures are helpful—Congress and the White House have canceled federal student loan payments through 2020—they won’t provide long-lasting solutions for borrowers.

At current levels, student debt isn’t just a burden—it’s a barrier to higher education and to the teaching profession. This is also why so many NEA members support presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has promised more effective, more comprehensive solutions to the student debt crisis, including:

  • To immediately cancel $10,000 per borrower to provide pandemic-related relief;
  • Stop billing borrowers who make less than $25,000 a year, cap payments at no more than 5 percent of discretionary income for those earning more than $25,000, and forgive remaining debt after 20 years;
  • Expand PSLF by forgiving up to $10,000 in student debt per year for five years;
  • And, address by the underlying causes of student debt by making public colleges and universities tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000—roughly 80 percent of the American people.

NEA: Providing Legal Services

Loan forgiveness isn’t why New Jersey’s Manes became a teacher. As a child, Manes grew up in Japan, moving to Doylestown, Pa., as a sixth grader.

“I was the only Asian student in the whole class. Culturally, it was very different. I was different,” he recalls. But he found a welcoming home in his new school’s music program. “It was in the music program where I was able to connect with other people my age. I saw it as a way to bridge cultures and have common experiences.”

Today, in Jersey City, one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., Manes leads robust elementary music programs at two elementary schools. He loves his job; in his classroom, he’s able to foster the same connections between students and cultures that he enjoyed decades ago. Half of the student body tries out for his annual musicals. (This year, Aladdin Junior!)

But his road from Westminster Choir College to the Ivy League’s Columbia University, where he received two master’s degrees, to the University of Washington, where he earned a Ph.D., didn’t come cheap. Although his Ph.D. was funded by the university, Manes borrowed more than $100,000 from the federal government to help finance his other degrees.

The promise of PSLF is unfulfilled. The original PSLF was rigid, rejecting applicants for arcane, uncommunicated reasons. In 2018, Congress stepped in to fix it, establishing the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (TEPSLF) program and funding it with $700 million."

Because of this debt, for years he lived with his mother and worked second and third jobs as an adjunct college professor and as a private piano teacher. It wasn’t until two years ago, at the age of 42, that he could afford a mortgage on a small condominium in Jersey City.

Although PSLF wasn’t why he became a teacher, Manes knew he earned it. With more than $100,000 hanging in the balance, “There was no way I was going to give up,” says Manes.

When FedLoan told him last year that he was missing proof of 42 loan payments—nearly four years of payments he knew he had made—he filed public-record requests under the Freedom of Information Act to wrest them out of DeVos’ agency. When his requests were ignored, he reached out to his senator’s office for help. “It’s clearly a problem that we have to get our senator’s office involved, just to get our own records,” he notes.

When he connected with NEA’s attorneys in 2020, he found legal partners who weren’t ever going to give up either. Harrington’s two-page letter, with six attachments, to ED and FedLoan attorneys makes it clear that NEA and Manes have lost patience with the process. By June 2020, Manes had made 129 qualifying payments—exceeding the PSLF requirement by nearly a year’s worth of payments. He would have made even more, if the CARES Act, a pandemic-relief effort, had not suspended federal loan payments this spring.

“This was my first contact with the national [union],” said Manes. “And I’m very much in debt to your services!”

NEA: Developing Tools for Members

Federal repayment and loan-forgiveness programs can—and should—work for educators. But long before they get to the point of approval or rejection, NEA members say they struggle to even get started. The options are confusing: should they choose standard repayment or income-driven? Aim for PSLF or opt for TLF?

With more than $100,000 in student debt, Ohio third-grade math teacher Jen Hall is counting on PSLF—but knows it can be a bumpy road. “I had a denial [from FedLoan] at one point in 2017 or 2018, they claimed my employer hadn’t filled in the dates of service,” she recalls. “I went back and looked—I had scanned and emailed the forms to myself—and yep, the information was there. So that was fun. It’s been a whirlwind!”

When Hall heard last year about a NEA Member Benefits tool that could help, she said, “Sign me up!” The tool, called the NEA Student Debt Navigator, powered by a financial start-up company called Savi, helps NEA members figure out their best path, and will even compile and file PSLF paperwork on their behalf. (It’s free to NEA members for one year.) With its help, Hall estimates she will save about $100,000 by 2027.

“As long as it actually comes through, that’ll be a good day!” she says.

It was a long road, but Manes had a very good day this month. “I don’t have to think about that number — $103,000!” says Manes. “That’s a mortgage in itself, and I’m so relieved that it’s no longer there.”

"I'm So Relieved," Says NEA Member Sean Ichiro Manes

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National Education Association

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.