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Democratic senators blast DeVos for mishandling a temporary expansion of loan forgiveness for public servants

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) (Steve Helber/AP)

The U.S. Department of Education has failed to create a simple and fair process for social workers, police officers and other public servants seeking federal student loan forgiveness through a temporary program, Senate Democrats say.

This week, liberal lawmakers wrote Education Secretary Betsy DeVos requesting data on the launch of a one-time expansion of Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that cancels federal student debt after 10 years of on-time payments for people who take jobs in the public sector. They also want the total number of requests received, approvals, denials and the most common reasons for denials.

Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) are accusing the department of botching the rollout of the program with misleading information on its website and through email communications to applicants.

“We are deeply concerned by unnecessary hurdles that have been put in place for borrowers,” the senators wrote.  “Many of our constituents have expressed frustration and confusion with the department’s unnecessarily restrictive approach to determining borrowers’ eligibility.”

The Education Department did not comment on the letter but noted that more than 14,000 people have inquired about the temporary expansion as of June 7.

How a provision in the spending bill could help public servants with student debt

Congress included a measure in the fiscal 2018 budget, based on legislation introduced by Kaine and Whitehouse, to help public servants at risk of missing out on forgiveness because they enrolled in the wrong repayment plan.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness requires borrowers be enrolled in specific repayment plans, primarily those that cap monthly loan payments to a percentage of their income. But some people have complained about loan servicing companies’ failing to provide consistent and clear guidance, leading them to believe they were making qualifying payments when they were not.

Now, borrowers can apply to have their ineligible payments counted toward loan forgiveness. Forgiveness under this temporary program is being offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Congress created a $350 million fund to cover the cost of canceling more loans. Once the money runs out, so will the offer. Lawmakers directed the Education Department to reach out to borrowers and develop a simple way for them to apply.

But Senate Democrats said the agency created eligibility criteria that are “significantly more restrictive” than Kaine and Whitehouse’s legislation proposed. They say the Education Department is needlessly restricting access by requiring borrowers to either have been denied, or to have a loan forgiveness application already in process, to be considered. Senate Democrats want the department to allow people to submit an application that will be processed under the new loan forgiveness program regardless of whether they have already submitted a public service forgiveness application.

What you need to know about the temporary expansion of loan forgiveness for public servants

The letter claims the Education Department’s website explaining the details of the temporary program is “plainly incorrect.” The website asserts people must have filled out a standard public service forgiveness application and had that application denied to be eligible for the temporary program. However, the Education Department has said it will review a public service forgiveness application that is currently in process, but not yet denied.

“Our public servants make our communities and our country stronger and better,” the senators wrote. “We urge the department to be thoughtful in the implementation … and make it a simple and fair process for our honorable public service workers to receive the student loan debt relief that they have earned.”