SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Politicians love to talk about the importance of education. In Illinois, legislators go a step further and personally award scholarships to state universities — sometimes to friends, donors and political allies.
For a century, each Illinois legislator has had the power to hand out a few scholarships every year without regard to students' needs or qualifications, which fit comfortably in the state's tradition of favors for people with connections. In recent years, a state lawmaker helped a political backer's four children with $94,000 worth of tuition waivers. Another gave a scholarship to the son of a Chicago alderman. Federal investigators are also looking into cases of recipients with suspicious addresses.
Now, after the failure of repeated efforts to end the $13.5 million-a-year program, opponents are making a new push to eliminate the waivers as Illinois officials try again to clean up the state's image after two consecutive governors wound up in prison.
The Illinois House voted last week to get rid of the freebie program; the big question is whether Senate Democrats will allow a vote on what Gov. Pat Quinn calls "political scholarships."
Supporters insist the scholarships are a way to help poor but promising students.
"I just think it's a nice thing we're doing. I really do," said Rep. Monique Davis, a Democrat from Chicago. "Look, there was so-called corruption or whatever in the governor's race, but we still have a governor's office. ... When we start abolishing everything where we find some misdeeds, we might have to close up down here."
Critics contend that if Illinois lawmakers want to help the state's education system, they should support programs that provide aid to needy students. Or they could set up their own foundations and raise money for scholarships.
But picking and choosing which students get a free ride is a bad idea, said Joni Finney, a University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in college access and affordability.
"I think it's terrible. It is subject to such political corruption," Finney said.
Illinois' program is one of the few of its kind.
Maryland legislators can also award state scholarships, which has led to similar allegations of political deals and favors. Three other states provide for much more limited assistance.
The chief sponsor of the bill to abolish the Illinois waivers, Rep. Fred Crespo, said it's clear some legislators are abusing their power.
"This is not really helping that many students," said Crespo. "This is just a feel-good kind of thing."
It also continues as the state struggles to finance public education. Tuition at Illinois public universities doubled between 1999 and 2009, according to the Institute for Research on Higher Education. About 150,000 eligible students were denied aid last year because the state ran out of money.
The program dates back to 1905. Each of the state's 177 lawmakers is allowed to award two four-year waivers annually, with the colleges absorbing the cost of educating the lucky students. In 2010, 150 lawmakers awarded a total of more than 1,300 such waivers. Lawmakers generally break them up and award eight one-year waivers annually. For years recipients' names were kept secret but that changed after journalists uncovered some of the winners and their political connections.
The tuition perk comes with one rule: Lawmakers are supposed to award the waivers to students who live in their districts. But that rule is often broken.
Last year, a federal grand jury subpoenaed documents related to waivers awarded by Robert Molaro, a Democratic lawmaker who's now a lobbyist. The $94,000 in waivers he gave went to the children of a Molaro supporter who may not have lived in the district.
And the State Board of Education contacted the FBI when it noticed that five apparently unrelated scholarship recipients had all listed the same address — the home of a campaign aide to Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval of Cicero.
The latest example is the news that state Sen. Annazette Collins, a Chicago Democrat, granted free tuition to five students who mysteriously listed their address as an old Collins family home, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Scholarship supporters like Davis reject the idea of addressing abuses by letting the State Board of Education decide who gets the tuition waivers in each legislator's district.
"I don't trust them that much. I don't think they'd choose many black kids," Davis said.
This year Republicans have increased the political pressure on the program. All Republicans in the Senate and most in the House have stopped awarding scholarships.
Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said Tuesday the issue will get a Senate vote "some time." He supports keeping the program but with restrictions, such as a ban on giving them to children of campaign donors.
Crespo said keeping the program just perpetuates Illinois' reputation for corruption and favoritism.
"If someone votes against this bill, they're enabling unethical behavior. It's as simple as that," Crespo said.
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