Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Quinn signs law ending legislative scholarships

By Jamey Dunn 

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill today eliminating legislative scholarships, as federal investigators appear to be pushing forward on a probe of the scandal-ridden program.

“It’s a very good day for Illinois. It’s a very good day for reform. It’s a good day for the taxpayers of our state. It’s a good day for education and for students who work hard and do their very best in order to try and get a scholarship that they deserve,” Quinn said at a bill signing event in Chicago today.

The program, which lets all members of the General Assembly hand out tuition waivers for state universities to students in their districts, has been under fire for years. Reports have surfaced of lawmakers giving the waivers to children of the politically connected or to students living outside of their districts. “I can understand if it happens once, might be a mistake. Twice? May be a mistake. But we are beginning to see a pattern, a trend, and that’s a problem,” said Rep. Fred Crespo, a sponsor of House Bill 3810. Because of allegations of corruption in the program, many lawmakers have opted not to give out the scholarships. Others call on independent panels to award them.

Lawmakers will no longer be able to hand out the waivers starting September 1. Students who have already been chosen to get the waivers for the upcoming school year will still receive them.

The newest development in the ongoing story of potential abuses of the program came yesterday when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office issued a subpoena in June to Sen. Annazette Collins for records related to her awarding of scholarships over her more than a decade-long stint in the General Assembly. The Sun-Times reported in March that Collins had awarded scholarships to students who used her home as their place of residence for the applications, while other documentation showed their residences as being outside of Collins’ district. Collins has denied any wrongdoing through her lawyer. Collins lost her primary election bid last February.

“Everyone has to follow the rules. So if there have been any rules that have been broken, they have to pay the consequences,” Quinn said today when asked about Collins. Prosecutors have also sought information about the scholarship program from the State Board of Education.

“Legislative scholarships are a perfect example of a program created with the best of intentions and then sadly hijacked by a small band of craven lawmakers with the worst of intentions,” said Andy Shaw, president and chief operating officer of the Better Government Association. “This is not about depriving needy students of educational opportunities. This is about depriving greedy lawmakers of unethical patronage opportunities.”

Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, said that while the program is often called a scholarship program, the cost is actually passed on to the universities. “We call this the legislative scholarship. It is not a scholarship. It’s a tuition waiver. A scholarship means that there is money or funding behind it. There was never any funding for this,” he said at today’s bill signing. Crespo said the program cost universities $13.5 million last year. “What does that mean for the state colleges? They need to cover that cost somehow. Consequently, I’m pretty sure the tuition for some of the paying students had to cover this privilege for state legislators.”

However, supporters of the program say it is an equitable and inexpensive way to make sure that financial assistance is spread throughout the state. “This is not a significant cost to the universities,” said Rep. Jim Sacia, who has local superintendents choose the students who receive waivers in his district. “What a shame that some of our colleagues have abused this system. This is one of the finest opportunities for young people out there. It gives kids the opportunity to go [to college] who don’t have the financial wherewithal,” Sacia, a Pecatonica Republican, said when the House voted to end the program. 

 But Shaw said the message sent by ending the program is more substantial than the savings. “This involves a very small amount of money in the scheme of things, less than $15 million a year, but it sends a very big symbolic message that better government is indeed possible in the state of Illinois.”

The new law also calls for a task force to scrutinize all waivers handed out by universities, which totaled $414 million last year. Such waivers are handed out for a variety of reasons, such as to graduate students who work in exchange for some or all of their tuition costs. Critics say that such waivers are handed out with little oversight and come at the expense of paying students. Those opposed to eliminating legislative waivers said the program should have gone through the same vetting under the task force as other waivers will face. “It’s almost [putting] the cart before the horse that we have this commission to take a look at scholarship waivers and at the same time abolish this program. Why not wait until we get findings that will determine the legitimacy of this program?” said Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford.

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