September 1, 2013 Columns

Grassroots 101: Local Loan-Forgiveness Actions Can Put More SLPs in Schools

Looking for SLP student loan forgiveness in your state? See how two states forged ahead to develop their own programs.

Federal financial incentives designed to lure teaches and other educators to schools in difficult-to-staff locations—primarily rural areas—aren't helping school districts recruit speech-language pathologists and audiologists. So some state associations are crafting their own programs and spearheading the effort to write the programs into state law.

The federal and local incentives take the form of student loan forgiveness: Teachers with training in high-needs subjects who take jobs in underserved locations may be eligible to have their federal student loans forgiven. Sometimes, speech-language pathologists and audiologists are eligible for the federal programs, but often they don't meet the specific criteria—having specific state teaching credentials, for example. Additionally, federal budget considerations will limit expansion of these programs, according to Neil Snyder, ASHA director of federal advocacy.

Savvy state associations, recognizing that loan forgiveness programs can give a much-needed boost to school districts' efforts to recruit SLPs and audiologists, may want to work with their local legislatures to introduce and pass loan forgiveness legislation. A recent Leader Online article captured the successful efforts of the Mississippi and Texas state associations, which did just that: A new Mississippi law authorizes student loan repayment for SLPs who work in underserved schools, and a new Texas law authorizes loan forgiveness for SLPs and audiologists who work in underserved schools and for PhD students in communication sciences and disorders who commit to working in higher education.

The process to obtain loan- forgiveness legislation can be slow and frustrating, and careful planning, preparation and persistence are vital. The principles and lessons learned from the Mississippi and Texas experiences can serve as keys to similar initiatives in other states. Any efforts to develop, introduce and advocate for loan forgiveness legislation should be collaborative—involving state leaders and members and other stakeholders—and include several important elements:

1. Collect data. Both the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the Mississippi Speech-Language-Hearing Association collected data vital to their efforts. TSHA used survey results from state special education directors; MSHA collected information on the number of openings for SLPs in the state's schools, the average cost of a speech-language pathology graduate program, the number of SLPs that stay in the state following graduation, and the number of graduates who choose to work in public schools.

ASHA also collects and posts nationwide and state-by-state employment data through a number of vehicles:

2. Collect personal stories from constituents and graduate students. Members can reach out to consumers who have been affected by a lack of services or by the limitations on services provided by under-qualified providers. Students can share their stories about financing their education. Use these stories to convey to legislators the impact of shortages on children and adults with communication disorders.

Inform, energize and engage members about the effects of shortages on the profession and the state. Members need to understand that personnel shortages open the door to under-qualified providers, increase the caseload of existing SLPs, and result in a service gap for students with communication disorders. They should also understand how a loan forgiveness program could help address the shortage and be willing to help advocate for this type of legislation.

3. Work with a lobbyist and legislative staff to draft legislative language. Members and leaders lay the groundwork by articulating the issue, collecting data to support loan forgiveness legislation, informing and energizing members, and gathering stories and testimony about the impact of the shortage on students and families. Armed with that information, the association's lobbyist and legislative staff can begin to draft legislative language. This process works differently in every state, so make sure you understand your state's requirements.

4. Identify legislative supporters and opponents. The state association, lobbyist and members can help identify legislators who will champion the bill. Sometimes, legislators or their family and friends have been affected by a communication disorder and understand the need for competent service providers.

5. Consider working with other professional organizations if that would strengthen your position. Loan forgiveness is an issue with broad appeal. Other state professional organizations, such as special education directors, school board associations, and related professional associations such as occupational and physical therapy organizations, may be interested in joining the effort.

6. Ensure that grassroots advocates are informed, organized and ready to act. Identify members who will join the lobbying effort. Enhance your efforts with regular communication—texts, e-mail alerts, website updates—so that everyone has and conveys the same information. Students are critical in establishing the need for loan repayment for PhD faculty, and can be organized through communication and collaboration with local chapters of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association.

7. Develop comments/talking points for advocates to use in their communication with legislators. Members can help develop talking points, gather personal stories, and create scripts for advocates. Give the legislators a flyer listing succinct points to remind them of the importance of loan forgiveness and to share with his or her staff.

8. Meet with legislators to garner support. Using the talking points and flyers, meet with legislators in their home districts to introduce the concept of loan forgiveness, and follow up with visits in the capitol during the legislative session.

9. Be persistent. As with any legislative effort, members need to be patient—yet persistent. If your bill is not successful the first time, don't give up! Be prepared to answer any questions and address your opponents' concerns before you introduce your bill again.

10. Be ready to compromise. As both Mississippi and Texas leaders learned, sometimes you have to accept less than what you asked for. Both states successfully advocated for loan forgiveness legislation, but the bills only authorize the programs—neither legislature appropriated any money to fund the initiative. The Mississippi and Texas associations recognize that funding the acts will be their next legislative challenge.

Janet Deppe, MS, CCC-SLP, is ASHA director of state advocacy. jdeppe@asha.org

cite as: Deppe, J. (2013, September 01). Grassroots 101: Local Loan-Forgiveness Actions Can Put More SLPs in Schools. The ASHA Leader.

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