If one state legislator has his way, a college scholarship program that became so politicized it was abolished a few years back would be resurrected.
State Rep. Thaddeus Jones (D-Calumet City) recently introduced a bill that would bring back so-called “legislative scholarships” – and enlarge the controversial program.
Under Jones’ proposal each General Assembly member would have the power to award four one-year scholarships, and two four-year ones on an annual basis, according to the legislation.
State Rep. Thaddeus Jones (D-Calumet City) / Illinois General Assembly
Previously, lawmakers could award up to eight years of free tuition, versus a total of 12 under Jones’ plan. What wouldn’t change is that a recipient has to reside in the legislator’s district and attend state government-sponsored colleges and universities in Illinois, such as the University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois University and Chicago State University.
The program had its benefits, to be sure. College is expensive — a year of in-state tuition costs more than $15,000 at the U of I — and a lot of deserving students and their families can’t afford the cost.
But reports of numerous abuses – such as scholarships going to kids of campaign donors, lawmakers’ pals and campaign workers – led the General Assembly to finally scrap the program, which had been in effect for more than a century.
The Better Government Association’s policy unit was instrumental in the passage of that bill, first introduced by state Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates) in 2011, and signed into law by then-Gov. Pat Quinn in July 2012.
“It wasn’t what you knew, but rather who you knew and how you maneuvered to get a scholarship. That really isn’t the lesson that the people of Illinois ever want to send with their tax money,” Quinn said at the time.
To Quinn’s point, the BGA and Chicago Sun-Times reported how state Rep. Dan Burke’s ex-secretary’s daughter received a legislative scholarship, even though she didn’t reside in the Chicago Democrat’s district. Other stories revealed how a Chicago alderman’s daughter received a scholarship from a legislator who was a political ally, and how state Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) awarded scholarships to at least 10 students who lived outside of her Far South Side district.
“The abuses were rampant,” Crespo tells us. He had not seen Jones’ proposal but said he doesn’t support bringing back the scholarships.
Jones acknowledges there were problems but says those could’ve been fixed.
“This was a program that didn’t need to be dismantled totally,” he says. Going forward “there will be a bunch of internal controls on it which will make for a smoother process.”
Among those proposed controls: a bi-partisan commission would sign off on the awarded scholarships. If fraud was found, the lawmaker would be on the hook to reimburse the state for the total cost of the scholarship.
Such reforms should make the public feel more comfortable about the program, Jones says. “This is a program, honestly, that’s helped a lot of black students and a lot of Latino students.”
It’s not clear at this point how much support the bill will muster. A spokesman for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) says Madigan knows of the bill but has not taken a position on it. A spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner was equally non-committal.
“The governor has not reviewed it,” she says in an email.
Other lawmakers wonder if the state – already in a huge financial hole – could afford the expense, which had been at about $13 million a year.
“You’d like to help students, but . . . all we’re doing is making the universities more liable for scholarships,” says state Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Sycamore.)
This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times website – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter and Patrick McCraney. They can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9035.