Public Citizen v. Department of Education (TEACH Grant FOIA)

In 2007, Congress created the TEACH Grant program, a federal grant program for students pursuing higher education to work as teachers. Students participating in the program generally receive up to $4,000 in grants annually in exchange for a commitment to work in high-need fields in low-income schools or districts for four of eight years after graduation. Thousands of students each year participate in the program and must demonstrate to a private servicing company that has a contract with the Department of Education that they meet the service requirements. Participation in the TEACH Grant program comes with a risk: If recipients cannot annually recertify their eligibility in the years following graduation, their grants are converted to federal Direct Loans, which students must then pay back with interest.

Unfortunately, that risk has been compounded by the U.S. Department of Education’s mismanagement of the program. In 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the TEACH Grant program and found that, over the course of roughly one year, the Department and its servicer discovered that more than 2,200 grants had been erroneously converted into loans.

In 2016, Public Citizen submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department to obtain records about the agency’s management of the TEACH Grant program, including any findings with respect to TEACH Grant recipients whose grants were converted to loans and any instructions or policies with respect to the reconversion of TEACH grants erroneously converted to loans. The Department released some records in response to the request but not others. Public Citizen filed suit in March 2018 to compel the Department to undertake an adequate search for responsive records and disclose them in full.