One last hurray for legislative scholarships

For more than a century, legislative scholarships had been an expression of political clout in Illinois. Lawmakers could give the valuable freebies – which essentially waived tuition and fees at a state unviersity – to whomever they chose. And many chose people they knew quite well, including children of campaign donors, party loyalists and state employees.

The fact that these scholarships often found their way to political insiders long had been dismissed as a drop in the state’s bucket of overflowing patronage. But they drew a second look in 2009 as a state financial aid program for low-income students faced massive cuts and amid revelations that lawmakers had used waivers to sway admissions decisions at the University of Illinois.

In 2010, the Tribune wrote a story questioning how former Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, could have awarded four scholarships to a campaign contributor’s children, given that the family lived outside his district boundaries. A federal grand jury subpoenaed documents connected to those waivers a year later.

Since that time, two other lawmakers – Sen. Annazette Collins and Rep. Daniel Burke – both had scholarship records subpoenaed amid allegations they gave the awards to students outside their district.

It’s against this backdrop that the legislature voted to abolish scholarships this year. Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill in July, setting their end date for Sept. 1.

But a Tribune analysis found that even as the troubled legislative scholarship program was on its last legs, state lawmakers continued to make questionable awards of free college tuition. One downstate legislator, for example, gave four-year scholarships to the daughters of two prominent Democrats from his area this year.

The Illinois State Board of Education, which oversaw awards, released this week a list of all scholarship winners dating back to 2001. Not surprisingly, the comprehensive records show many lawmakers used the waivers as a way to provide free rides to the children of campaign donors and party loyalists.

In the past decade, at least 75 legislators awarded scholarships to relatives of people who contributed to the lawmakers’ re-election committees or other political funds they controlled, according to the Tribune review. At least three students whose fathers were later charged with public corruption had their tuitions waived by Democratic lawmakers, records show.

During that same time period, lawmakers also awarded at least 317 scholarships to the relatives of state workers, whose positions range from toll collector to assistant attorney general, according to a comparison of scholarship recipients with the state payroll. Family members of at least eight judges — none of whom makes less than $140,000 annually — also received tuition waivers, according to the paper’s review.

While these revelations won’t shock anyone who has been paying attention to the repeated scholarship abuses over the years, they’ll surely serve as a reminder as to why so many people called for their abolition, and why the Tribune was so interested in finding out everything we could about the program.

-- Stacy St. Clair

 Join Trib Nation on Facebook for more of the how and why of Tribune journalism.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad