Call for Action: How hard is it to get your student loans forgiven?

MADISON, Wis. — A retired Madison educator is calling for action over a federal loan forgiveness problem – the issue at hand, whether she qualifies as a teacher.

Christy Donovan retired from the Madison Metropolitan School District last summer, but you wouldn’t guess it by all the homework she’s still doing. On her coffee table is a file of documents two inches thick, detailing years of work trying to get some of her student loans forgiven. She showed us the application for the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, taking up a good portion of those inches.

“It’s 2 pages, and it’s out of an 8 page document where the rest of the pages are the explanations of how to apply,” she laughed.

Donovan’s students loans come from her Masters in Education, which she used to help receive a license from the Department of Public Instruction, as required by MMSD. She spent 20 years with the district before stepping away last schoolyear.

If all these facts would lead you to believe Donovan is a schoolteacher, that title depends on who you ask – and it turns out that definition matters very much when it comes to her student debt.

“I’m frustrated. It’s silly,” she said. “I think I should have the opportunity that all the other teachers have.”

Donovan is a physical therapist by practice. During her two decades with the district, she says she spent her days creating plans for students with disabilities and teaching them functional lessons, as well as aiding their education in other classrooms.

“We teach functional skills,” she reiterated. “We don’t teach academics, but there are a lot of teachers that are hired that don’t teach academics.”

Donovan inquired about the federal Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program years ago and was told she didn’t qualify as a PT. Then, during a meet-up with colleagues through her union, Madison Teachers, Inc., an occupational therapist with the district told her they had received forgiveness through the very same program.

“This answer indicates to me that there needs to be some more discussion on what my role is,” Donovan said.

Per the loan forgiveness program application, a teacher’s employer must sign off that the applicant was, to the best of the employer’s knowledge, a teacher as defined in the program. Requirements include a bachelor’s degree, state certification as a teacher and others – you can read the full list here.

Over the last few years, Donovan says HR employees for MMSD have given her a handful of reasons for not certifying her employment with the district. The latest reason they gave News 3 Now – that she had wrongly identified herself as a special eduation teacher instead of a PT. The application, however, does not provide a space for Donovan to label herself as a physical therapist. Donovan also says it’s not up to the district to decide whether she’s eligible – it’s up to the program.

“This could all be solved with a phone call,” Donovan said.

It’s something federal officials with the loan program suggested – a 3-way phone conversation between Donovan, the district, and themselves. Donovan has been asking the district for months for this phonecall. They didn’t get back to her until we got involved, finally agreeing to set up that conversation.

“I’m not asking for money [from the district,]” Donovan said. “Just to verify I work there, so I can apply for loan forgiveness. And then if they turn me down, they turn me down.”