Politics & Policy

A Teacher-Recruitment Program Set Up to Fail

(Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
No one should be surprised that the federal TEACH Grant program is floundering.

In 2007, Democrats in Congress enacted a program to recruit teachers in “high-need fields” to schools serving low-income students. Some ten years later, a group of Democratic lawmakers is demanding “answers and action” from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos regarding problems with this same program. How a well-intentioned proposal went from being a solution to being a problem provides important lessons for policymakers.

At issue is the federal TEACH Grant program. An idea championed by since-retired representative George Miller (D., Calif.), these grants cover up to $4,000 in annual undergraduate and graduate tuition for prospective teachers. If a recipient fails to teach in a high-need field at a designated school for the right amount of time, his grants are converted to loans with back interest. The Democratic senators now demanding answers about the program are responding to recent reports that a large share of recipients have had their grants converted to loans. Critics have rushed to blame these conversions on administrative errors or bureaucratic nitpicking from the Trump administration.

Lost in the outrage and partisan blame is a sober account of the many problems with this ill-conceived government program.

The TEACH Grant was always expected to result in high rates of grant-to-loan conversions that feel like a bait-and-switch to teachers. And despite what is implied in the media coverage and the claims of congressional Democrats, the vast majority of these conversions have little to do with how the program is managed. The problem is in how Congress designed it and what lawmakers expected it to accomplish, neither of which is going to be addressed with better customer service.

Targeting benefits to certain teachers in certain schools requires that recipients navigate lots of eligibility rules and fine print. They must also complete annual paperwork by certain deadlines to “certify” that they are complying. And of course some teachers may change their minds about completing the service requirements after receiving their grants. Thus the high rate of grants converting to loans.

Recent reports of teachers feeling burned when their grants convert to loans do not acknowledge these points. Yet the program’s problems were well understood even before it got off the ground. The Bush administration warned just months after the TEACH Grant was enacted that it expected 80 percent of grants to convert to loans because recipients would fail to complete the service requirements. Then the hard evidence began to roll in.

After a group of Democratic senators asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the program in 2013, the agency concluded that a large share of TEACH Grant recipients were indeed having their grants converted to loans. While the GAO blamed a small share of those conversions on government and contractor administrative errors, the vast majority appeared to have resulted from recipients’ failure to prove that they’d fulfilled the teaching requirement.

The GAO also found that some colleges and universities opted not to issue TEACH Grants at all, because in their view the rules were too complicated for teachers, necessitated reams of paperwork, and would likely result in high grant-to-loan-conversion rates. In short, the program was so poorly designed that some colleges turned down the money.

The Obama administration commissioned its own study in response to the highly critical GAO report, but by the time the study was finished it fell to the Trump administration to release the results. This 2018 report reveals why so many TEACH Grant recipients feel burned when their grants convert to loans. The media coverage implies it is because of administrative errors on the part of the Department of Education, and the report does suggest that 13 percent of those cases in which grants are converted involve administrative “challenges” that could be similar to the errors that have received so much scrutiny. But far more recipients whose grants were converted to loans — a full 60 percent of them — say they were confused by or unaware of the terms of the program, or simply forgot to complete each paperwork requirement.

In other words, Congress created a confusing program and confusion resulted. That is why the Department of Education requires that TEACH Grant recipients read a 32-page guide before signing an “Agreement to Serve” form and then complete a series of counseling sessions. Perhaps these could be improved, but it is more likely that the TEACH Grant carries too high an administrative burden to accomplish its goals and prevent teachers from getting burned.

The 2018 report also describes another reason why TEACH Grant recipients might feel like they were set up: Many recipients say they cannot find jobs in qualifying schools. Of the 39 percent of recipients not teaching in qualifying schools, almost one in three said they could not find an eligible school to teach in, applied for a job in an eligible school but did not receive a job offer, or taught at an eligible school that later lost its designation as a teacher-shortage area before they met their grants’ terms of service.

These teachers must be questioning whether the problem that the TEACH Grant was supposed to solve — a teacher shortage at schools serving low-income students — really exists. Or maybe they don’t want to move to a place where there are shortages. Either way, the program is not working as intended.

The early champions of the TEACH Grant probably thought the idea was a better version of loan forgiveness for teachers, a benefit the government has offered since the 1950s. They must have reasoned that reversing the order in which teachers receive benefits — grants that convert to loans instead of the other way around — would work better to recruit teachers. But by now, we know both types of programs suffer from a lack of awareness among the target population, low take-up rates, and complicated rules and restrictions that teachers must navigate, often unsuccessfully.

Back in 2007, when Democrats in Congress looked set to pass the bill that included the TEACH Grant, President Bush indicated he might not sign it. In his public veto threat, he complained that “the bill’s loan forgiveness provisions are a costly and inefficient way to encourage students with debt to pursue specific professions.” President Bush ultimately signed the bill, but as many TEACH Grant recipients can tell you, his worst fears about the inefficiencies of loan forgiveness have since been realized.

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Jason Delisle — Jason D. Delisle is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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