LANSING — Student loans could be tied to student lunches for teachers in some Michigan school districts desperately seeking to attract them.
A bill recently introduced in the Senate would establish a student loan forgiveness program for people teaching in schools where at least half of the students meet the income eligibility criteria for the free or reduced lunch program.
That’s 45% of public school students in Michigan, according to recent data from Public School Review, an organization that compiles public school data by state.
Of the 3,381 Michigan public schools listed in its report, 1,695 have over 50% student eligibility for free or reduced lunches.
Incentivizing teachers in lower income school districts could help to combat educator shortages, said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of school personnel.
“There are not enough people entering the field through teacher prep and too many people leaving early in their career for other professions that compensate people better,” Pratt said. “It’s a perfect storm of problems, and we’re going to need a variety of solutions like student loan forgiveness to bring more people in and keep them in the profession.”
Teachers in qualifying school districts would receive forgiveness for up to $20,000 of state and federal loans during their first four years of school if the bill passes.
The state Department of Education would administer funds and create an application process. A teachers loan forgiveness fund would be created within the state treasury to provide the money.
The Education Department would award the grants yearly for 10% of a teacher’s total remaining debt each year of continued working in a qualifying school district. That could continue for up to 10 years.
To stay eligible for the loan forgiveness program, teachers would need to continue teaching in qualifying districts each year.
The department still is reviewing the bill and has no position at this time, said William DiSessa, a spokesperson for the department.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, and was dubbed the “Excellence in Education Act” in the legislation. Bayer did not respond to a request for comment.
Pratt said a similar federal program, called the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, denied 98% of applicants because of complex rules.
And attracting teachers is not just about money, he said. Teacher burnout leading to early retirement is another problem.
“One of the drivers behind the educator shortage is certainly the lack of compensation in education, but it’s also the lack of respect,” Pratt said. “We’ve got to solve both those things.
“One way to do that is to say we understand the skyrocketing student loan rates, and that we can address those,” he said.
Department of Education data showed teacher shortages in a wide range of categories, including language arts, mathematics, sociology and special education, according to a memorandum from the department.