Don't Let Illinois Lawmakers Bring Scholarship Program Back To Life

<p>Under Jones’ plan, lawmakers would be able to annually award four one-year scholarships, and two four-year free rides to public colleges and universities in Illinois.</p>

AMC’s hit show "The Walking Dead" is back and once again pulling in sky-high ratings. In case you haven’t seen it, the show follows a team of people fighting to survive in a world filled with undead, bloodthirsty zombies.

Life at the Better Government Association sometimes feels a bit like that, but instead of zombies we’re confronted with bad government programs that never seem to die.

Case in point: Years of embarrassing disclosures finally created enough pressure to kill the state’s scandalized Legislative Scholarship Program, which expired in 2012 with a stroke of former Gov. Pat Quinn’s pen.

The move came after numerous media stories, including these BGA investigations with the Sun-Times:

  • The daughter of state Rep. Dan Burke’s former Springfield secretary getting free tuition, even though she didn’t live in Burke’s Southwest Side legislative district — the program’s only requirement.
  • Chicago Ald. Anthony Beale’s daughter receiving a scholarship from state Rep. Bob Rita, a political ally who employed a member of Beale’s family.
  • State Rep. Monique Davis handing out scholarships to at least ten students who didn’t live in her South Side district.
  • Even President Barack Obama, while serving in the Illinois Senate, may have bent the rules by awarding two scholarships to students who weren’t in his district.

Those examples, and many others, finally convinced lawmakers to terminate a $13 million program that was designed to help needy and deserving students, but wound up benefiting too many sons and daughters of politically connected insiders.

Despite that, state Rep. Thaddeus Jones (D-Calumet City) not only wants to bring the program back from the dead, he wants to expand it.

Under Jones’ plan, lawmakers would be able to annually award four one-year scholarships, and two four-year free rides to public colleges and universities in Illinois.

That’s four more scholarship years than the old program.

Jones argues the scholarships benefited a lot of students with the brains, but not the bucks, to attend college, and says it should have been reformed, not dismantled.

He also claims the new legislation includes enough built-in controls to eliminate the scams that permeated the earlier version.

"This was a program that didn’t need to be dismantled totally," Jones told the BGA.

That reminds me of something I said at the bill signing that ended the program in 2012: "This is not about depriving needy students of educational opportunities — this is about depriving greedy lawmakers of unethical patronage opportunities."

It’s still true today. College is expensive, and needy Illinois students can certainly use a break.

So helping them is a noble cause — but it’s a job for educators, not politicians, especially lawmakers who regrettably demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, they can’t handle it.

There’s also a cost issue: Jones’ plan doesn’t provide funding for the scholarships; it would be up to colleges and universities already facing tight budgets and the prospect of massive new cuts in state aid to absorb the added expense.

"We can’t just keep demanding that universities keep providing more and more things," said state Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Sycamore).

It’s unclear if Jones’ bill has enough support to pass. The offices of Gov. Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan are both noncommittal.

But if it does show signs of life, the BGA and many other "zombie-hunting" watchdogs will try once again to kill it.

Because, let’s face it: Some things are just better off dead.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.