Bill would forgive student debt for teaching in needy Georgia schools

Teachers would see $25,000 in student loan debt erased if they work at some of Georgia’s lowest-performing and most rural schools under a proposed bill.

House Bill 736 would provide debt forgiveness for teachers who graduated from University System of Georgia schools who take jobs in one of 325 schools across the state. Of those, 105 are turnaround schools — those that scored in the bottom 5% of state evaluation scores — and are mostly in metro Atlanta, said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead. The remaining 220 are in "the most distantly rural areas" of Georgia, Belton said.

The bill is intended to incentivize teachers to go to and stay in schools that need them while alleviating the burden of student debt. The average graduate from a public Georgia university leaves with more than $27,000 in student loan debt, Belton said.

The program would initially apply to a maximum of 1,000 teachers on a first-come, first-served basis. That would cost $5 million annually in loan forgiveness, not including any administrative costs that would come with it. There are more than 2,000 positions currently open in schools that would qualify under HB 736, Belton said.

In a year when the Legislature has been asked to cut the state budget, Belton is still optimistic the new expense can be justified. The state’s low employment rate has made it difficult for businesses in all areas of the economy to hire for open positions, including teachers.

“One of the ways to increase revenue is to have a more educated workforce,” Belton said. “If we get people graduated and prepared for these great jobs, we could increase the economy and make a more prosperous state.”

At a Wednesday meeting, members of the House Higher Education Committee were interested in the bill but came with many questions. Some suggested expanding the bill to explicitly include teachers who are long graduated from college, covering loans from schools outside the state system or ensuring debt from master's degrees could be forgiven. The meeting was solely intended to "sound out" the bill, and a vote will be planned for a future meeting, said the committee's chairman, state Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta.

“I do want to keep this moving along,” Martin said.

Belton said he was open to changes that would ultimately allow the bill to reach the House floor.

“I want to make it happen,” Belton said. “I want to produce a recruiting tool.”