Pressure grows to end scholarship program

THE BALTIMORE SUN

State lawmakers will face unprecedented pressure in coming weeks to end one of their most cherished perks, the legislative scholarship program.

With the entire General Assembly up for re-election this year, efforts to abolish the scandal-tinged program appear to be gaining crucial support in the Senate, a traditional roadblock to reform.

At stake is the power of senators and delegates to hand out $7.9 million a year in college aid. With few rules and no oversight,

lawmakers have produced a hodgepodge of systems in Maryland's 47 legislative districts.

Indeed, for many students, their hometown has more to do with their chances of winning a scholarship than they realize.

The odds of winning, the size of awards and the family income of recipients varies greatly from district to district, according to an analysis by The Sun of the scholarships for the 1992-1993 school year.

While some legislators resolutely defend the 126-year-old program, a growing list of critics say it is outdated political patronage that will rile voters already in an anti-incumbent mood.

Those critics have a potentially important new ally, the NAACP.

"I think [legislators] would be foolish to keep this issue around during the election," said Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a citizens lobbying group that has made the scholarships its No. 1 issue this year.

"If they abolish the system now, they can run as reformers in the election. If they stiff-arm the reform again, they are subject to strong attack by challengers."

Last year, a bill to do away with the program passed the House of Delegates but died in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee on a 7-4 vote.

This year reformers have picked up one more ally on the committee, and two other members say they are leaning toward change.

Lawmakers have introduced four bills that would turn over the money to the state's main scholarship agency, which would select recipients based on uniform guidelines.

The legislative scholarship program, the only one of its kind in the nation, gives Maryland politicians an opportunity to hand out public money directly to constituents.

And some taxpayers are not happy about it.

"They would rather see it out of 'political' hands, and I see no reasonnot to accommodate constituents' requests. It's their tax money, and they have a right to say how the money should be spent," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who is sponsoring one of the reform bills.

The program has received a black eye over the years from reports of lawmakers awarding scholarships to the children of relatives, friends and political supporters.

Such incidents are not new. Almost a half-century ago, a report by independent experts found that "senators are not always as discriminating as they might be in the selection of recipients."

Even if lawmakers do not use the program to reward old friends, they can make new ones by giving money to hundreds of potential voters every year, critics say.

A few legislators concede that point.

"It does help an incumbent to be awarding that much money a year," said Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a Democrat from Glen Burnie.

A new ally

This year reformers have the support of the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"We call upon the General Assembly to demolish the diversion of these funds to the political whims of senators and delegates," said Herbert H. Lindsey, chairman of the state conference's political action committee.

The money, Mr. Lindsey said, should be given out by the State Scholarship Administration on the basis of need and academic potential.

The Scholarship Administration already gives out three-fourths of Maryland's $31 million in college aid, mostly on the basis of financial need alone.

Lawmakers distribute the rest. Each of the 47 senators is entitled to hand out $138,000 annually, while the 141 delegates have $12,200 each to draw upon. However, seven senators and 16 delegates now allow the Scholarship Administration to select their winners.

Family incomes vary

Senators say they seek needy students, particularly those who fall through the cracks in other college aid programs. But just who qualifies as "needy" varies from district to district.

The Sun's analysis found that the average family income for legislative scholarship winners ranged from $17,500 in Baltimore's 39th District to $56,183 in Prince George's County's 27th District last year.

Senators from Montgomery County, the wealthiest subdivision in Maryland, awarded grants to students with lower family incomes, on average, than senators in poorer jurisdictions such as the Eastern Shore and Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

The average family income for Montgomery winners was $31,200, compared with $47,000 in less affluent Prince George's.

One possible reason is that the Scholarship Administration chose the recipients for two of Montgomery's six senators in 1992.

Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery Democrat, offered another explanation.

"Montgomery County legislators do a good job of finding people who need the scholarships," he said. "That doesn't surprise me, because Montgomery is a good-government county."

Statewide, about 200 awards went to students with family incomes above $90,000. Overall, 30 percent of the senatorial awards went to families earning more than $50,000.

The middle class wins

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has defended the legislative scholarships as one of the few state programs that benefits the middle class.

That is particularly true in his southern Prince George's County district. The average family income for students who received scholarships from him last year topped $56,000, the highest of any Senate district in the state.

Of the 263 awards in Mr. Miller's district, 157 went to families with incomes above $50,000, including 22 with earnings of more than $90,000, according to The Sun's analysis. Mr. Miller awarded one scholarship of $200 to a student whose family income topped $113,000.

Mr. Miller said he would rather give an award to an upper-middle income student who excels in school, sports and community activities than to a low-income pupil who does not.

"If it gets to the point where we're awarding scholarship to students who don't work after school, don't get good grades and don't participate in extracurricular activities, then we're losing touch with reality," the Democrat said.

The Sun also found:

* The size of awards varies tremendously by district. In the House of Delegates, the average scholarship ranged from a low of $316 to a high of $1,548.

In the Senate, the average award statewide was $643 last year but ranged from $380 in Sen. Leo E. Green's district in Prince George's to a high of $1,170 in Sen. Habern W. Freeman's Harford County district.

Legislators who give many small awards, which barely make a dent in college costs, have been accused of trying to maximize the goodwill they reap from the program.

Senator Green, for one, strongly disagrees. He said he used to give out lower awards because he had more applicants than many of his colleagues. Frustrated by media criticism, he turned over his money to the Scholarship Administration last year.

* The demographics of a district have a lot to do with a student's chances of landing a legislative scholarship. Senator Green has had as many as 2,300 students a year apply for about 90 scholarships.

By contrast, Democratic Sen. Michael J. Collins is able to give a scholarship to nearly every student who applies for one in his east Baltimore County district, which has relatively few high school graduates going on to college.

* While it's hard enough in some districts to win one legislative scholarship, in some districts, many students end up with two.

For example, in District 31 in northeastern Anne Arundel, 42 of the 63 winners of delegate scholarship also picked up an award from their senator, Democrat Philip C. Jimeno. Like many of their colleagues, legislators there did not compare their lists of winners.

By comparison, in Harford County's District 34, only six of the 40 students who won a delegate scholarship also received an award from Senator Freeman.

'Delicate negotiating'

State Higher Education Secretary Shaila R. Aery has been quietly talking to legislators about how they might transfer the legislative scholarships to state administrators.

"It's been a delicate negotiating, frankly," Dr. Aery said.

"It's not that easy to just cut off the legislative scholarships. There are a lot of little things that have to be worked out both technically and politically."

Many senators say they are reluctant to turn over their money to a state bureaucracy that will not treat students as personally as they do.

Senator Hollinger is seeking to address some of those concerns in her bill, which would shift the program's funds to the Scholarship Administration for distribution based on need.

The proposal stipulates that the agency be flexible enough to help students in sudden financial straits. And the money would have to be spread equally across Maryland's 47 legislative districts, as it is now. Few lawmakers, after all, want their constituents to come out with less.

If a reform bill does succeed, many lawmakers will be muttering the entire time. They'll be giving up control over a program that many believe makes a real difference in young people's lives.

Success story

Baltimore Sen. John A. Pica Jr. took to the Senate floor last week to cite the exemplary case of Harry L. Undy Jr., 30, a former waiter and bartender in Fells Point.

Mr. Undy said he "was flat broke and owing a lot of money" when he received a scholarship from Senator Pica two years ago.

He used the award to attend Essex Community College, and he transferred to prestigious Brown University in Rhode Island last semester.

But the other stories -- the ones about scholarship winners from well-off, politically connected families -- have overshadowed the successes.

Several senators still believe in the program but acknowledge it has been too tainted by scandal to remain unchanged.

One staunch supporter, Democratic Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore, has changed sides. He introduced a bill last week that would replace the grants with student loans to be administered by the state scholarship agency.

A fellow senator jokingly asked Mr. Miedusiewski if his change of heart had something to do with his decision to run for governor.

Of course not, the candidate replied. "You just can't keep explaining [the program] away."

WHAT THE COMMITTEE THINKS

Bills to abolish the legislative scholarship program will move through the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. Interviews with the 11 members show that five now support reform efforts, and two more are leaning toward change:

FAVOR MAJOR CHANGE IN PROGRAM (5):

* Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County: "Constituents are telling us they're not comfortable with the program the way it is."

* Christopher J. McCabe, R-Howard-Montgomery: "I think the program can work without us having to administer it."

* American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore: "You cannot effectively argue away the concept of elected officials handling state money and the perception that gives."

* J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset-Wicomico: "I think it should be taken out of the political arena."

* Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel: "What I'm doing is voting for good government and for getting rid of the appearance we're doing this for political gain."

LEANING TOWARD CHANGE (2):

* C. Bernard Fowler, D-Calvert: "For the sanctity of the system, we really need to make some changes although it's a shame. . . . I'll likely accede to some change this year."

* Idamae Garrott, D-Montgomery: "I could vote for Senator Hollinger's [reform] bill."

OPPOSED TO CHANGES (4):

* Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore (chairman): "The beauty of the senatorial scholarship is that it's not expressly based on need. There are other factors looked at."

* Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County: "I have no quarrel with the legislative scholarships."

* Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George's (vice chairman): "The scholarship program is more humane."

* Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George's: "If I came out and said I'm against these scholarships, I wouldn't get re-elected down here."

A TALE OF TWO DISTRICTS

With almost no rules, Maryland's legislative scholarship program varies greatly from district to district. Consider, for example, the way Harford County's two state senators distributed their $138,000 each last school year. While some of the differences could be attributable to varying demographics in the districts, the senators also have quite different philosophies about how to distribute the money. Senator Freeman concentrates large scholarships on a small number of the neediest students with strong academic records. Senator Amoss prefers smaller awards to a larger number of students.

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. District 34 .. .. .. .. District 35

Senator .. .. .. .. .. Habern W. Freeman .. .. William H. Amoss

No. of students helped .. .. .. .. .. 99 .. .. .. .. .. ... 205

Average grant .. .. .. .. .. .. . $1,170 .. .. .. .. .. .. $596

Avg. family income . .. .. ... $31,007 .. .. .. .. .. $48,875

No. of winners with

family incomes

above $50,000 ... .. .. .. .. .. .. 15 .. .. .. .. .. .. . 87

Average SAT score .. .. .. .. .. .. 917 .. .. .. .. .. ... 971

LEGISLATIVE VS. GENERAL STATE SCHOLARSHIPS

The legislative scholarship program tends to help more affluent students and fewer blacks than General State Scholarships, which are distributed on the basis of need.

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Senators .. .. Delegates .. .. General State

Avg. family income

of aid recipients .. .. .. $38,612 ... .. $42,148 ... ... $28,100

Percent awarded to blacks: .. 21% ... ... N.A.* ... .. .. 28 %

* Many delegate scholarship winners did not report their race on state records.

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