Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Cullerton reverses support for legislative scholarships

By Jamey Dunn

After pressure from lawmakers and years of public scrutiny, Senate President John Cullerton is sponsoring a bill to end the legislative scholarship program.

Cullerton said he had hoped the program could be reformed. But after the majority of the Senate signed on to a bill to eliminate the program, he said he decided to move ahead with the idea. “There have been some abuses of the program, and yet a lot of young people have received scholarships and benefited from that,” he said. However, Cullerton said that the issue is becoming too great of a distraction during a legislative session when lawmakers hope to reform the state’s Medicaid and pension systems. Calls to end the legislative scholarship program, which allows lawmakers to hand out tuition waivers for state universities to students in their districts, came after reports of lawmakers awarding waivers to the children of politically connected individuals or campaign contributors.

House Bill 3810 was approved by a Senate committee today with Cullerton as a lead sponsor. The measure, which passed in the House, has an added provision. Cullerton is calling for a task force to study all tuition fees and waivers doled out by state universities. “Many people have questioned whether or not there should be some standards applied to those. … because they cost the state a lot of money.” Cullerton said about $356 million in such waivers are given out annually. Legislative scholarships account for $13.5 million of that total.

House Minority Leader Christine Radogno said that lawmakers should scrutinize such waivers because they allow some students to avoid paying a portion of tuition and fees while other must pay the full cost. “In addition to the abuses, though — and I understand that not all of the [legislative] scholarships have been abused — we have to understand that this is a cost shift,” Radogno said. “It is high time we do it.” The bill would not apply to the 2012-2013 school year, but no new waivers would be handed out after September. “Some people have already started the process of awarding the scholarships,” Cullerton explained.

Opponents say the program gives opportunities to students who might not otherwise have the chance to go to college. “I’m not glad to see this happen,” said Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford.“I think it’s a travesty for education in the state of Illinois.” Lightford said the program ensures that financial help for higher education is being evenly distributed across the state, since the waivers can be doled out in each legislative district. “I believe the General Assembly scholarship program was fair. It was consistent across the state.” She said lawmakers should wait to hear what the proposed task force says about the legislative program before deciding to abolish it.

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