Ayindé Rudolph is superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District in Mountain View, Calif.
But pundits might want to consider debtholders who don’t match this narrative: teachers.
In the education field, debt is often the price of entry. Nearly half of all teachers in pre-K-12 and higher education take on debt to finance their education. They do so not out of thoughtlessness but out of necessity.
I earned my degree in education 23 years ago with funding from a Pell Grant. Pell recipients come overwhelmingly from families that earn $60,000 a year or less, and in 2015 more than 70 percent of Black students were recipients. Back then, I selected a small liberal arts school that made financial sense and that provided me with the degree and credentials I needed to teach. Yet I still had to borrow $23,000, the maximum allowable amount for federal undergraduate student loans.
After college, some educators find it necessary to take on even more student debt. When I entered the classroom in 2000, teachers who didn’t have a bachelor’s degree in education were required to have a master’s in education — or to be pursuing one. Over the years, some states have required educators to earn a master’s degree within their first five or 10 years of teaching, or have offered salary incentives for them to do so. In other instances, teachers need an advanced degree to cover the bills, because teacher-pay tiers are based on education and years of experience.
My first job, with Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, offered a starting salary of $24,000. To make ends meet, I tacked on extra jobs, coaching in the afternoons and working nights and weekends at a local learning center.
Even then, it was a financial struggle to provide for my family and pay back my student loans. I had to request a forbearance for several months when I simply wasn’t generating enough income. Often I had no discretionary funds left after paying my monthly bills and my loan payment.
Now, Biden has proposed student loan forgiveness for people like my younger self, extending up to $20,000 in forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 for other borrowers. For those who go into teaching, it’s a proposal that seems long overdue.
Education degrees don’t lead students to the middle of nowhere. They direct young people into a field that desperately needs them. Right now, schools across the country can’t find enough teachers to meet demand, leaving leaders to scramble for solutions. Yet every year, superintendents like me say goodbye to teachers who have excelled in the classroom but are exhausted by financial struggles.
It’s agonizing but understandable. The average teacher in public schools makes only about $63,000. Most teachers could make more money babysitting or bartending than they do educating the next generation of Americans. Part of the solution is to increase teacher pay. As a country, however, we must also find other ways to make it more comfortable and more feasible for young people to go into education.
This should include reducing debt loads for early-career teachers. By decreasing average monthly payments, as the president’s plan would do, the program would free up more of educators’ monthly income to cover the rapidly rising costs of housing, groceries and other necessities. Biden’s plan would also go a long way toward keeping many teachers motivated to stick with the profession and stay in the classroom.
Bear in mind that our country aggressively subsidizes a host of other industries — farming, airlines, electric-car manufacturers. Let’s ask ourselves: Aren’t teachers as deserving as Tesla? If return on investment is driving the conversation, let’s talk about how it’s teachers who will produce the next generation of farmers, pilots and engineers.
By asking educators to mold our most precious resource — our children — we generate our own debt of gratitude. Why not reduce their student loan debt to demonstrate that our society values them? This is the kind of forgiveness that could truly pay dividends.