In April 5the White House announced it was extending the pandemic-era pause on federal student loan payments through August 31. (It was supposed to expire in May 2.) The development followed escalating calls for debt cancellation from teachers, students and advocates, including an April 4 protest organized by the Collectif Dette, the first union of debtors. The Biden administration’s move to extend relief was welcomed by advocates, but fell short of demand for permanent loan forgiveness. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), for example, passed a resolution in March calling on President Biden to use his executive power to to cancel student debt and “increase spending in our local community.
“We are grateful that the moratorium on student loan repayments has been extended. We must now maintain people power to encourage Washington to provide permanent relief from these predatory and profiteering student loans.”
For teachers, the student debt crisis is personal. All states require teachers to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, while at the same time, public school teachers earn approximately 20% percent less than university graduates of similar level. Today, nearly half of all educators have taken out student loans to pay for their college education. The average teacher carries about $58,700 in debt – roughly equivalent to the salary of a beginning teacher in Chicago public schools. Black teachers across the country carry a disproportionately greater burden because 1 in 5 still owes more $100,000, according to the National Education Association. Nationally, black women have the most disproportionately high amount of student debt, compared to all other demographic groups.
All signs suggest that, without significant and permanent government intervention, student debt will continue to accumulate. According to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the cost of a college education has increased by 169% over the past four decades — while the incomes of young people have increased by only 19%. Following Reagan-era budget cuts to financial aid programs, the price of college rose exponentially, with costs being passed on to students. This trend was reinforced by even greater funding cuts at the state and federal level during the Great Recession, and spending never returned to its previous level.2008 levels.
But unions are joining the fight. The CTU is the third largest teachers’ union in the country, with 25,000 members, and holds a reputation as a political powerhouse, known for waging campaigns that blur the line between self-interest and community interest. In April 4, CTU members were among hundreds of people, including fellow members of the United Teachers Los Angeles union and the City University of New York Professional Staff Congress, who supported the Day of Collective Action against debt online and in person. the “The Pick Up the Pen, Joe rally took place outside the US Department of Education in Washington, D.C. There, the coalition of debt holders presented a ready-to-sign executive order for Biden to sign the cancellation of all federal loans.
CTU has spent the past two years developing a relationship with the Debt Collective. Most recently, at the monthly meeting of the CTU House of Delegates in March 9educators participated in a “exit exercise,” openly sharing with each other the amount of debt they are carrying — to highlight how the issue is affecting union members.
When the CTU House of Delegates, the elected body of union representatives, ratified a resolution for the cancellation of student debt in March 9, it was the first time the union had called for a blanket cancellation of student debt. CTU views loan forgiveness as “only one step towards improving public education”, but declares that “Student loan debt is an often-overlooked barrier to diversifying America’s teaching workforce.
In these times spoke with CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates about the impact of the student debt crisis on union members and its effect on Chicago’s remaining black teachers.
Paige Oamek: What’s your response to Biden’s latest announcement that he’s extending federal student loan payment relief through August 31?
Stacy Davis Gates: We are grateful that the moratorium on student loan repayments has been extended. Now we must maintain people power to encourage Washington to provide permanent relief from these predatory and profiteering student loans. This must include removing the financial barriers that continue to hurt students – especially black and brown students, including women – and making higher education accessible to all.
Paige: How is student debt forgiveness a job issue?
Stacy: It’s a matter of work. And I would also say it’s about racial justice. When you look at who gets the lion’s share, it’s black women. I have extraordinary college and university debt. It is therefore difficult for me to work both in public education and in the world of work. So it’s not easy to balance all that student debt, as a first-generation graduate and mother of three.
I come from a generation of black people, black women in particular, who believed that going to college would allow us some upward mobility and create a financially better infrastructure than our parents. And what he has become is a kind of albatross – this extra burden. I have one 13 years, and I’m pretty sure that when he goes to college, I’ll still be paying off college and graduate school debt.
Paige: How does the student debt issue impact teachers, in particular?
Stacy: I don’t even think it’s teachers. I think it’s about people who aren’t teachers because they can’t afford to be teachers. Many of our colleagues who have gone into another professional space have done so to be able to pay off their debt, instead of becoming educators.
People with the level of education I have generally don’t choose public education because it doesn’t take care of student debt, pay bills, or provide the infrastructure they need. to become owners and take care of their families.
This limits the number of people who view public education as a career path, as they make decisions based on their ability to support themselves and their families versus their passion. Teachers are generally university graduates, they also obtain master’s degrees, sometimes two or more. And their salaries are much lower than the salaries of those with the same level of education as educators.
Paige: How can unions be a tool to push action on this issue?
Stacy: We must continue to fight for salaries and benefits commensurate with those who have the same level of education as us. We will challenge our president, senators and congressmen to cancel student debt. It is a matter of justice.
If I have to go to a post-secondary institution to earn a reasonable salary in society, you really have to consider the cost of a college education. Unions must demand that public education be free, not just from pre-K to 12and school level. A college degree became just as necessary in this era as high school diplomas once were.
We need to think very seriously about equity – how lack of money serves as a gatekeeper to upward mobility. Going back to Senator Sanders, he was very clear about the need and that the amount of debt we hold prevents us from taking out mortgages – so many of us are unable to buy homes. These are gatekeeper tactics that depress the economy. You have people living in their parents’ basement, and they go to work every day. They’ve got degrees and master’s degrees, and they can’t afford to buy property – buying a home gives people a portal to financial stability.
Paige: How did CTU members organize around debt cancellation within the union?
Stacy: We have participated in workshops where some of our members have been able to erase part of their debt thanks to government programs. But if we can work with what the government has given us to push back, we also need to organize against these issues. When people talk about bread-and-butter unionism, they must also be talking about our student loan debt. Because if I pay more of my salary to debt than to building financial stability, then we lose good people from our profession.
[Editor’s note: Over the last several years, CTU has hosted workshops to help its members manage, suspend and diminish student loans through programs by the Education Department. But the programs aren’t a panacea. One, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is considered a “notorious quagmire,” and is undergoing an intensive overhaul. Data from the Education Department shows that 98% of applicants have been rejected since November 2020.]
Paige: How can unions and teachers continue to organize?
Stacy: What you have to do is make a request at the federal level—it’s a national issue, and we have an international union. It has to be on our platforms across the country, when politicians come to us asking for their support. We just have to draw a line in the sand with the government and say, “If you want our support, then we must have your support. We need to reduce debt and make post-secondary education opportunities affordable or free.
We also need to figure out how to organize ourselves in a way that makes visible the disproportionate burden on first-generation college graduates and college graduates of color — which we really, really need in education. This is a critical issue: if my bank account is coming out more than it is coming in, we are missing out on the kind of potential teachers who could really be a benefit to our school communities. Because of their school debt, we don’t see black men in our school communities, we don’t see black women in our school communities. When people talk about the benefit of having people of color who can mirror classrooms, if we don’t understand the student debt trap, we’ll probably never be able to reflect a balanced learning community.
Paige: Personally, what would canceling your student debt mean to you?
Stacy: I could stand on my own two feet. I made a financial sacrifice to be a public school teacher in Chicago. If I could have gotten my undergraduate and graduate degrees without having to go into debt, that probably wouldn’t be a problem.
It is important for people to understand where the harm is most exacerbated. We shouldn’t have to do something that doesn’t speak to our hearts, our passions, and our intellectual curiosity because of the debt we carry: we need all of these qualities in our school communities.
The American Dream means that I am expected to leave my children more than what my parents originally had. And many of us keep our heads above water because of debt.
This interview has been edited for clarity.