August 1, 2013 Features

Loan Forgiveness Passes in Two States—But Without Funding

Texas and Mississippi leaders continue to lobby for funding that will help recruit SLPs and audiologists to public schools.

It's a familiar scenario: public schools with unfilled positions for speech-language pathologists and audiologists. In Texas, the shortage of both is statewide. In Mississippi, metropolitan area schools are well-staffed, but more than 70 rural districts can't find qualified SLPs.

The associations in both states led successful efforts to enact student loan forgiveness laws to entice qualified graduates to work in underserved areas. The legislative victories are only the first phase of the effort, as neither has funding attached.

"In the current economic climate, it's not unusual for legislation to be authorized and not appropriated," explained Janet Deppe, ASHA director of state advocacy. "It can take several years to get funding. But getting the legislation on the books is a significant victory. It demonstrates that lawmakers understand the need to attract and retain qualified speech-language pathology and audiology professionals."

Texas

In Texas, legislation allows the state to forgive graduate student loans for SLPs and audiologists who take school-based positions and for new doctoral-level communication sciences disorders faculty. Leaders of the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association are pleased with the new legislation, which they began pursuing 10 years ago.

"Like just about every state in the country, Texas has a shortage of SLPs in the schools and a shortage of doctoral-level faculty in our CSD training programs," said Larry Higdon, TSHA director of governmental relations. After several years of groundwork, the state legislature filed a $7.5 million loan repayment bill in 2009 that would forgive up to $30,000 in loans for 250 new school-based clinicians and up to $45,000 in loans for 10 new doctoral-level faculty in the state's 17 CSD training programs.

The bill passed both chambers of the Texas legislature and, to meet legislative deadlines, was attached to another bill and sent to the governor to sign. On the final day to take action, the governor vetoed the larger bill, killing the attached loan repayment legislation.

"We were shocked to read about it in the paper the next day," Higdon said. "We had no idea it was at risk. We thought we were home free."

Undaunted, association leaders worked to have the bill re-filed in 2011. (The Texas legislature meets every other year.) "But there was no money that year," Higdon said. "The state had a $30 billion deficit. We never even got a hearing. But we kept at it. We wanted to remind the legislators, 'We're still here, we still need your help.'"

When the 2013 legislative session opened, TSHA leaders applied the lessons they learned in 2011. They worked with legislators and appropriations committees to try to get funding, "but no one would champion it," Higdon said, despite a $2.7 billion budget surplus.

"We re-filed the identical bill, but with no funding attached to it," Higdon said. "We added language that allows the loan repayment program to accept awards, grants and gifts. It passed with no problem and the governor signed it."

The association is weighing its options for seeking funding for the bill in the future. In the interim, "we are considering self-funding, foundation grants, and other sources," Higdon said. The TSHA board is considering the use of association money; leaders may ask that surplus funding collected in licensure fees by the State Board of Examiners for Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology be used for the loan repayment program.

Pursuing other funding shows the Texas legislature that "we're willing to put our money where our mouth is," Higdon said. "If we go to them for money, we have a stronger case if we can say that we're not just looking for a handout, that we're willing to work with them to make this happen."

The personnel shortage in Texas has not abated. In 2011, there were 1,320 unfilled positions in schools, translating into 66,000 students who were unserved or served by clinicians without master's degrees (Texas allows bachelor's-level clinicians to work in schools under the supervision of licensed SLPs). About 16 percent of schools reported vacancies; 75 percent contract with outside agencies to fill positions, a move that costs $12,000 more per year per outside provider.

According to a recent poll of students in the state's 17 training programs, the most-cited reason for not pursuing a master's degree is the cost, Higdon said, adding that "the children of Texas need this legislation."

Mississippi

For several years, school district superintendents in the more rural areas of Mississippi had been concerned about their inability to fill SLP positions. In response, the state board of education and legislature—unbeknownst to the Mississippi Speech-Language-Hearing Association—developed and passed a new licensure law in 2010. The law creates a permanent, renewable "216" license that allows bachelor's-level speech-language pathology graduates to provide pediatric articulation treatment in public schools, "under the guidance/direction of, and in collaboration with, a master's-level, fully-certified" SLP.

The new license, which took effect July 1, 2013, was designed to replace the temporary "emergency certificates" and "interim certificates" school districts would obtain to hire bachelor's-level clinicians to fill openings, according to Carolyn Wiles Higdon, 2011 MSHA president. In the 2011–2012 school year, 150 speech-language pathology providers in Mississippi public schools were working under the temporary, one-year certificates, in addition to the 800 master's-level SLPs in the state's public schools.

In response to this new 216 certification, speech-language pathology leaders requested a statewide interdisciplinary task force to address the new certification and to approach the rural shortage more comprehensively. The state's superintendent of education and Institutions of Higher Learning Board appointed the task force to:

  • Work with the state board of education to develop requirements for the certificate and to develop a training program-specifically for those holding emergency and interim certificates, who would have lost their jobs July 1—to meet the requirements.
  • Work with the state's five undergraduate programs to integrate the 216 certificate training requirements.
  • Work with the graduate speech-language pathology training programs to attract more students through part-time and online graduate training opportunities.
  • Address supervision training for licensed, certified SLPs.
  • Support MSHA's efforts to develop marketing videos to support recruitment and retention efforts.
  • Develop the student loan forgiveness program for master's-level graduates taking jobs in rural public schools.

"The task force debated ways to entice people to rural schools," Wiles Higdon said, "and we decided on a loan forgiveness focus, because graduate education is expensive." MSHA wrote a bill for a loan forgiveness program that requires students to work in a rural school for at least two years-one year for every year of graduate training. "Research tells us that if an SLP stays in a job two or three years, there's a higher likelihood of that person remaining in the job," Wiles Higdon explained.

The bill, which calls for up to $35,000 in student loan forgiveness for 10 students per year, passed the legislature in 2012—unfunded.

"We took our lobbyist's advice and didn't start by asking for the moon," Wiles Higdon said. "We knew it was going to be a three- to five-year process. We went back to the legislature in 2013 to get it funded, but the general approach to the budget this year in Mississippi was that nothing new was going to be funded. So we will go back again in 2014 with our data and outcomes."

The law includes only SLPs because, Wiles Higdon said, "We were new at this, and reacting to the bachelor's-level certificate that was developed and approved in 2010. Our focus was on how to get master's-level SLPs into rural school systems in Mississippi."

Despite the funding challenges, Wiles Higdon sees the glass as half-full. "And our lobbyist is optimistic, too," she says. "We may go back with a compromise of five students each year for a couple of years, show the data that the program is working, and then ask for increased support." 

Carol Polovoy, is assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader. cpolovoy@asha.org

cite as: Polovoy, C. (2013, August 01). Loan Forgiveness Passes in Two States—But Without Funding. The ASHA Leader.

Lessons Learned

Want to try for loan forgiveness legislation in your own state? Texas leaders offers some pointers.

by Larry Higdon and Cherry Wright

The Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association helped secure passage of a student loan repayment bill, designed to help relieve the shortage of school-based speech-language pathologists, during the recent legislative session. Here are some key lessons we learned along the way.

  1. Collect data to support the bill. This is not done overnight! Plan ahead and be prepared with supporting documentation. TSHA completed two major surveys of directors of special education and analyzed the results to have data to support the proposed legislation. Work with universities in the state to secure supporting information.
  2. Be sure the state association membership is keenly aware of the personnel shortage and its negative impact on the profession and the students who qualify for services. Members must understand the need for the bill and how it helps fulfill the need. TSHA published articles about the shortage in its quarterly newsletter for several years prior to and during the introduction of legislation. The annual convention included legislative sessions and public school forums.
  3. Secure legislative liaisons or lobbyists—association volunteers or employees—who know the legislative process and key legislators who can introduce and support the bill. They must forge a relationship with legislative aides and communicate with them regularly and monitor legislation daily. They should be directly accountable to a member of the association's Executive Board and authorized to act on behalf of the association. TSHA has two such employees—the director of governmental affairs and the legal and legislative counsel—who report to the vice president for social and governmental policy.  
  4. Organize the legislative communication process so that members can become actively involved. Communicate with members regularly (through, for example, e-mail alerts), provide talking points and an actual script for members to send to their respective legislators, and identify key members and consumers who testify at committee hearings. It's also important to identify members who are relatives or acquaintances of legislators or who provide services to members of their families-especially legislators on a committee that reviews the bill—so that they can make personal contacts.
  5. Organize a Legislative Day when members and students converge on the capitol to educate their respective legislators about the bill. Prepare talking points and assign a member mentor who can work with students and walk them through the process. TSHA student members made quite an impression on legislators! TSHA also sent a small introductory gift to each legislator (a box of fresh-baked cookies) on the Legislative Day.
  6. Solicit the help of related professional associations. TSHA has worked actively with the Texas Council of Administrators in Special Education for the past 10 years to address the shortage in the schools. Consequently, the council's president and director of governmental affairs testified in committee hearings and sent legislative alerts to their members. TSHA also secured support of major teacher organizations, which count public-school SLPs as members.
  7. Be persistent! If you're not successful on the first attempt, regroup and introduce the bill in a subsequent legislative session. TSHA introduced the bill in two different legislative sessions before getting it approved.
  8. Continue to be involved with the legislation once it has passed. TSHA has formed a committee to provide recommendations to the Higher Education Board on rules for implementing the legislation.

Larry Higdon, MS, CCC-A, lwhtsha@gmail.com, is TSHA director of governmental relations.

Cherry Wright, MS, CCC-SLP, cwright@omniglobal.net, chairs the joint TSHA/TCASE Public School Advisory Committee.



Pay Attention to the ‘Invisible Gorillas’

Mississippi leaders heed what's in front of them as they push for a loan forgiveness bill. Here's what they learned along the way.

by Carolyn Wiles Higdon

In their book "The Invisible Gorilla" (2010), Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons suggest that we do not notice the important things that are right in front of us—that we think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we're actually missing a whole lot. When the Mississippi Speech-Language-Hearing Association decided to propose and advocate for a loan forgiveness bill, we did not realize some of the most important things that were right in front of us. We suggest that the following "invisible gorillas" helped us pursue establishment of this bill—and we hope they will continue to help us as we pursue funding.

  1. Collecting the data. Know your numbers before you develop this type of bill: the number of speech-language pathology and audiology openings in public schools, the number of school districts needing either support and/or personnel, the cost of graduate education in your state, the number of students completing graduate-level communication sciences and disorders programs, the number of graduates who remain in your state in CSD positions and for how long, and the number of graduates who select public schools versus medical settings.
  2. Meeting with legislators who chair or are members of key committees.
  3. Teaching students in CSD graduate programs how to advocate for a bill. Mississippi received a small ASHA grant to teach students how to advocate for the professions at the state and federal levels. Our lobbyist took some graduate students for a "Day at the Capitol" to lobby for the bill, and the participants then trained their fellow students in grassroots lobbying. The feedback on this approach was extremely positive, and we were able to have an impact on many students with this model.
  4. Working closely with the lobbyist or key person who will carry the bill's message to lawmakers. Be sure that the spokesperson has a clear understanding of the professions, the cost of graduate education and current practice issues.
  5. Educating the state association members about the bill, including the need for the legislation and its advantages, and how to advocate without appearing to be self-serving.
  6. Having discussions with the government relations team of the state's institutions of higher learning association (Mississippi's was helpful with passage). Secure support from key legislative chairmen prior to the legislative session. Arrange the association's grassroots advocacy program (for example, a system of quick response) before the session begins. 
  7. Addressing the budget hearings. In Mississippi, budget hearings begin this month, and we will speak with the key appropriations chairs and subcommittee chairs to reinforce the need for funding for our program. The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning's legislative services director will also support the effort. 
  8. Identifying key legislators or politicians in your state who have family or close friends with communication disorders. Understand the type of services they have received in determining how to garner additional support in your lobbying efforts.
  9. Knowing the profession. I know this sounds strange, but SLPs and audiologists often become isolated in their own specialties and niches. As we speak for the profession, we should not talk about just speech-language pathology or just audiology. And although we certainly promote our own specialty areas, it's important that we be able to talk about the breadth and depth of the professions.
  10. Talking the talk. Just as we need to know the breadth of the professions, we need to be able to talk about our academic training models so that legislators and politicians are aware of extent of our professional training.
  11. Articulating our own clinical and academic knowledge and training, and how they compare (or don't) to related professions: Why are SLPs important in classroom academics: Why do you need a licensed audiologist to recommend your hearing aids? Why is treatment through early intervention programs by a licensed SLP important to a high-risk infant? In these changing health care and educational arenas, we need to do more than "sell" our profession—we need to be able to explain what we do and why it requires the skill and knowledge of SLPs and audiologists.

Carolyn Wiles Higdon, EdD, CCC-SLP, cwhigdon@gmail.com, is a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Mississippi (Oxford), and a clinical associate professor at the UM Medical Center in Jackson. She is ASHA vice president of finance and was 2011 president of the Mississippi Speech-Language-Hearing Association. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 10, Issues in Higher Education; 12, Augmentative and Alternative Communication; 13, Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders; 17, Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders; and 18, Telepractice.

Source: 

Chabris, C., & Simons, D. (2010). The invisible gorilla: How our intuitions deceive us. New York: Crown.



  

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