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Student activists to Secretary Duncan: Let's talk debt

They marched, 200 strong, to the U.S. Department of Education, asking Secretary Arne Duncan to talk to students, not just to Sallie Mae, the corporate giant that takes in millions of profits from students, families and taxpayers.

Last year, when United States Student Association (USSA) leaders made a similar request at the doors of Sallie Mae, they were rebuffed and 36 were arrested. "We've got your back," AFT president Randi Weingarten told them at the time, as the AFT prepared to post bail for the activists.

Student Debt Rally

This year, the students arrived at the Education Department steps carrying letters detailing their personal experiences with debt. They were asking Secretary Duncan for a seat at the table, says Ian Reese, a University of Wisconsin student. "We want the department to stand with students, not with corporations like Sallie Mae, whose predatory loan practices are saddling people with debt from the cradle to the grave."

The students and their supporters were met by a dozen or so police officers, says John Connelly, a Rutgers University senior who is the first in his family to go to college and has taken on $15,000 in debt. Barred from entering the building as planned, the students sat down in front of the building instead. "There's a lot of power in a large group of silent people," Connelly notes.

Before too long, education officials came out to say that the secretary would like to meet with students in the next month and would ask Albert Lord, the chief executive officer of Sallie Mae, to consider a separate meeting with the students, too.

The students were in Washington, D.C., for USSA's 44th annual legislative conference, which each year provides budding activists with an opportunity to learn techniques and brainstorm strategies for amplifying their voices on their home campuses and in their state capitals. Lately, the focus has been on the No. 1 issue for students and their families: $1 trillion and counting in student loan debt. This month, the students blasted Sallie Mae's loan servicing contract with the Department of Education, worth nearly $85 million of taxpayer dollars every year, says Connelly. They also raised concerns about the department's ongoing relationship with the Walton family, which advocates for charter schools, including the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, D.C., which has fired teachers for trying to unionize. (See related story.)

The March 15 demonstration was organized in partnership with Jobs with Justice/American Right at Work, the Student Labor Action Project and the Student Debt Campaign. At a banquet, USSA honored the AFT with an award for its support and partnership in the past year. "It's always good to stress the importance of student groups working with unions," says Connelly, who is president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly. RUSA is a member of Rutgers One, a coalition of students, alumni, and faculty and staff unions at Rutgers, including the Rutgers Council of AAUP Chapters-AFT and the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT. "We sit down once a month and talk about issues we're all facing," he says. "We like to say, 'The teachers' working conditions are the students' learning conditions.' We have to be aware that their fight is our fight." [Barbara McKenna, Chris Hicks/American Rights at Work photo]