By Jamey Dunn
College scholarships handed out by members of the Illinois General Assembly may soon be a thing of the past.
The Senate voted today to end the program that allows lawmakers to hand out tuition waivers for state schools to students in their legislative districts. The scholarships came under scrutiny after it was reported that lawmakers have awarded them to students outside of their districts, as well as to the children of campaign contributors.
Senate President John Cullerton has been reluctant to end to program, saying in the past that it could be reformed. But after half the members of his chamber signed on as sponsors of House Bill 3810, Cullerton decided to advance the legislation.
“You wouldn’t think that we would take relish in eliminating over 1,400 opportunities for kids to have scholarships to go to college,’ Cullerton said. “But there were abuses. And we have some major, major issues to deal with down here in the next month, and everybody knows what a distraction this is.”
Republicans in the chamber commended Cullerton for his change of heart.
“It’s not easy to change your position in this building,’ said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican. Dillard said he once supported the program, but today he called it a “dinosaur.”
“Times change. Times change fiscally. Times change ethically. … It’s time as an institution that we let this perk — which was properly used for many years — go. And it is time that we step up and do what’s right,” Dillard said.
Cullerton tacked a provision onto the bill that calls for a commission to review all the tuition waivers given out to students at state schools. He says that $414 million in waivers were used by students this year. “Many of these things have no standards whatsoever. So the same attention that everybody put on legislative scholarships ought to be put on the other tuition waivers. And we might have that task force also address the concern about eliminating the opportunity for these young people to get a college education.” The legislative scholarships were worth about $13.5 million annually.
Those who want to keep the General Assembly program going say that it provides opportunities to kids who may not otherwise get a chance to go to college and evenly spreads financial assistance throughout the state.
“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.
“I would urge [you] later in the month when we’re talking education funding and we’re talking [Monetary Assistance Program] funding to remember this vote that you just took. Because those same individuals who are now unable to receive scholarships will need more MAP grant opportunities,” she said during floor debate of the bill in the Senate.
Because the bill has been amended in the Senate, the House has to approve the change before it would go to Gov. Pat Quinn.
Quinn has pushed for the elimination of the program and is sure to sign the measure if it lands on his desk. “Today, the Illinois Senate took a big step forward to do the right thing. I want to salute President John Cullerton for his leadership and urge the House to quickly concur with this long-overdue ethics reform,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “Abolishing a political scholarship program is the right thing for deserving students who need financial assistance to attend college. Illinois deserves to have a strong scholarship program that helps needy students go to college. As I have repeatedly advocated: Scholarships paid for by Illinois taxpayers should be awarded only to those with merit who are in true financial need.”