Congress is tossing around the idea of writing off student debt for teachers as a way to lure more people into the profession.

Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan introduced legislation that would offer teachers special student debt relief. Dubbed the Teacher Debt Relief Act, the bill would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The Teacher Debt Relief Act seeks to level the playing field for teachers with two federal student loan forgiveness programs, targeting an existing rule that requires them to jump through hoops to qualify.

Chief among the current limitations is a law requiring teachers to put in over a decade of service before they can qualify for both forms of forgiveness at once. Lately, educators have had a tendency to jump ship before waiting around for the relief.

Under the Teacher Debt Relief Act, these restrictions would be lifted so teachers have a better chance at financial freedom and more young educators are drawn to the profession.

“This legislation sends a strong message that we value the hard work of our teachers and understand the challenges they face in the classroom and their school districts every day. This bill will keep talented teachers in the classroom, and provide greater stability for our local school districts,” stated Sen. Stabenow.

In a sense, the bill tries to tackle two problems at once: Address the growing student debt crisis facing teachers and ensure the nation’s teacher shortage doesn’t get any worse.

While teachers would surely welcome greater debt forgiveness, chances are its a drop in the bucket compared with the challenges they face.

There aren't enough teachers to fill classrooms

In Sen. Stabenow’s home state of Michigan, the teacher shortage has gotten so severe that learning among children has become compromised. Schools lack consistent staffing, with close to 50% of teachers exiting the classroom within the first half-decade of getting hired.

The reality is classrooms nationwide are suffering from a teacher shortage, with close to nine out of 10 public schools struggling to find staff for the 2023-24 school year. What gives?

Teachers have been facing a perfect storm comprising low pay, challenging parents, and political undercurrents that have caused many of them to decide the job isn’t worth the trouble. While teacher salaries vary by state, the average annual pay hovers just below $59,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s hardly enough to lure more professionals to the classroom, especially those saddled with massive student loan debt.

As of 2021, more than 50% of educators with student loans were carrying an average balance of $58,700.

Meanwhile, teachers in cities where the cost of living is high and who have completed higher education, including master’s and doctoral programs, are saddled with over $100,000 in student loan debt. The math just doesn’t add up.

Teachers are starting to push back. Ever since the pandemic, they’ve been using sick days more frequently, and substitutes are hard to come by.

New York City’s public school system is a prime example, where almost 20% of teachers missed at least 11 days of school last year, a trend that has been growing since the pandemic.

Meanwhile, approximately 15% of teachers in Michigan’s public school system were out in any given week compared with 10% before the pandemic.

James Fry, superintendent for Washington State’s College Place Public Schools, told The New York Times just how bad things are getting: “The proof in the pudding is how many people have exhausted their leave and are asking to take days off that are unpaid. That used to be a really rare occurrence. Now it is weekly.”

Teachers aren’t likely to make much headway on their student loan debt if they are taking unpaid leave. Their only hope appears to be policy reform.

Teacher pain points

Delving deeper into Sen. Stabenow’s bill, the legislation wants to remove a couple of the pain points teachers face with loan forgivenessspecifically the Teacher Loan Forgiveness (TLF) Program and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program, two of the four federal loan forgiveness programs for teachers.

Educators are no strangers to tenure, and the existing loan forgiveness programs use a similar concept. Borrowers must wait a combined 15 years if they want access to both of these loan forgiveness programs concurrently, dragging out the repayment process as interest continues to build.

“At a time where our nation is experiencing widespread and severe educator shortages, we cannot have burdensome laws that perpetuate the difficulty to pursue a career in education,” stated Marc Egan, director of government relations at the National Education Association.

Under Sen. Stabenow’s bill, teachers would be allowed simultaneous access to both student loan debt relief programs.

PSLF forgives the balance of federal direct loans once 120 qualifying payments have been made, which takes an estimated 10-plus years to complete.

Meanwhile, TLF will forgive as much as $17,500 of Direct or Federal Stafford Loans for teachers of select subjects following five straight years of teaching at an eligible school, while others can receive $5,000 in loan forgiveness.

When combined with President Biden’s student debt forgiveness bonanza, educators could experience more relief than expected. But whether it’s enough to keep them in the classroom remains to be seen.