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Editorial: Move to fix teachers grant program was overdue

December 21, 2018

It’s encouraging that the U.S. Department of Education says it is planning to fix a program that has done thousands of teachers wrong. But a big question remains: Will the department and the company it contracts with to manage the Teacher Education Assistance for Colleges and Higher Education Grant program fairly and efficiently make those corrections?

Let’s hope so. Otherwise, the people in charge of the program could best be described as shysters.

The program in question, referred to as the TEACH grant program, aims to increase the number of people teaching in high-need fields (reading specialist, mathematics, science) at schools serving low-income populations. The grants provide up to $4,000 a year to students who plan to become teachers so long as they agree to serve in qualifying positions and schools for a minimum of four years in an eight-year period and provide annual certifications that they are fulfilling those requirements.

The program’s parameters were tailor-made to fill important needs in West Virginia. Since 2010, all 55 counties in the state have been considered low-income areas with a high need for qualified teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education. And since the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 650 college students in West Virginia received TEACH grants.

But some of them, part of at least 2,250 teachers and perhaps as many as 15,000 nationwide, have been treated unfairly. Because of paperwork issues, many related to lack of notifications by the companies servicing the program, their grants were converted to loans that the teachers were told they had to repay. Whether the teachers fulfilled the main requirements of the program - teaching a qualified subject in a qualifying school - was deemed irrelevant. And once those conversions were made, the teachers had little help from the agencies involved to rectify the situation, according to a 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office.

The Education Department has been pressed to fix the mistakes, and early last week it responded. It issued a notice of plans to reconsider the cases of TEACH grant recipients who believe their awards were incorrectly converted to loans, the Washington Post reported. The loans of those who are successful will revert to grants, and payments on those loans will be refunded, according to the department.

The agency also is considering regulatory changes to streamline the process, which advocacy groups say is badly needed so grant recipients don’t get caught up again in red tape.

With its pronouncement last week, the onus is certainly on the Education Department to make good on the mistakes. Just how the process will work isn’t known yet, so some of the grant recipients remain unsure whether they will be dealt with fairly. Some also contend that changes need to be made with FedLoan, the company that services the grants, and that it has sufficient resources to administer the program.

The TEACH grants program can help steer teaching resources to areas that badly need them. But for it to have the biggest reach, potential participants must know that they won’t fall prey to the mistakes of its past.

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