MADISON, Wis. — A bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers is working to expand the eligibility for a forgivable loan program for minority trainee teachers after changes made four years ago led to a drop in loans awarded.

The state's Minority Teacher Loan Program offers loans to African American, Latino, American Indian and some Southeast Asian populations to study teaching at a Wisconsin college.

But the program has been seeing dips in enrollment in recent years following changes that make it more difficult for people to qualify, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

In the three school years prior to the eligibility changes taking effect, the program awarded 212 loans. Only 11 loans were awarded in the three school years after the changes, including just one in 2017-18.

The 2015 changes required recipients to work at a public or private school only in Milwaukee, teach in a high-demand field and receive a rating of proficient or distinguished in a teacher evaluation. If the requirements are met, 25% of the interest and principal on loans is forgiven per year.

Before the changes, recipients could pursue any teaching discipline and work at a Wisconsin school with a minority student population of 29% or more — which is about 60 school districts, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Now, a bipartisan bill would allow loan recipients to get their loans forgiven if work in schools composed of 40% or more students of color, which is the case in about 25 school districts, or a tribal school, while still working in a high-demand field such as special education, math or bilingual teaching.

"I think sometimes we lose sight that there are people of color outside of Milwaukee and Madison," said state Rep. Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee. "We do a disservice, to be honest, if we don't say, 'Hey listen, inclusion and diversity is good for everyone of us.' Let's do this outside of just Milwaukee."

Connie Hutchison is the executive secretary of the Higher Educational Aids Board, which runs the loan program. She said she thinks the limitation on where recipients could teach caused interest in the program to decline

"If you narrow it to just one specific place, people aren't even sure they're going to get a job in Milwaukee," Hutchison said. "If they're taking out a loan, and their only option is one school district, that's not really much of an incentive for people to take out a loan ... they're depending on to be forgiven."

The Assembly bill received unanimous support in the Colleges and Universities Committee. It is scheduled for a full Assembly vote on Tuesday.