Thursday, February 17, 2011

Will the Legislature have the political will to do away with their college perk?

I found it ironic that Gov. Pat Quinn chose to wear an African-style Kente cloth scarf while presenting his budget proposal for the state fiscal year that begins in July. Because I can think of one aspect of his speech that the Legislature’s black caucus is likely to despise.
Tuition waivers approved here ...

It wasn’t one of his major points (those were cuts for Medicaid reimbursements, consolidating school districts and eliminating regional school superintendents). But Quinn put himself on the record as wanting to do away with a political perk that has been in existence for over a century.

I’M REFERRING TO the tuition waivers that legislators are allowed to give out to people who attend public universities in Illinois. They’re more commonly called the Legislative Scholarships, which technically isn’t correct because no money changes hands.

What happens is that the students who get the waivers are given a letter from the legislator – informing the bursar at their respective college that no tuition is to be charged. This student gets a free ride, which really means that everybody else’s tuition increase is just slightly higher because the colleges have to accommodate these students who come from across the state.

The irony I see is that Quinn used his scarf (embroidered with the words “governor of Illinois) that was a present (according to the Chicago Tribune) from state Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Chicago, to create a visual image of sympathy, perhaps even solidarity, for the African-American legislators.

Yet those legislators (if my memory hasn’t completely faded away from my days as a Statehouse reporter-type person) were usually the biggest supporters of this particular perk – which has been something the General Assembly members have had since 1905.

THE WAY THE perk works is that every year, a legislator can give a full tuition waiver for four years to a student who attends the University of Illinois (the Urbana-Champaign, Chicago or Springfield campuses), and another full, four-year waiver to a student who attends any other public university in Illinois (Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Chicago State, etc.)

There aren’t any requirements for who gets the waivers. The legislators have the ability to decide for themselves who qualifies. Throughout the years, there have been tales told of political people who gave the waivers to the kids of prominent campaign contributors, or who repaid favors to other political people by allowing their respective waiver to be given to someone who benefitted someone else for political purposes.

... could send students here, unless ...

Considering the cost of college these days, it is not a piddling perk that we’re talking about here.

But I remember the Black Caucus members were usually the biggest defenders of the perk because they liked to say they enjoyed being able to do something concrete that would encourage people in their urban legislative districts to think seriously about wanting to attend college.

NOW I SHOULD point out a couple of things. While the explanation I just gave of how this perk works is accurate, there are various ways of implementing it.

Some legislators, in order to avoid the appearance of politicizing the perk, pick some sort of panel of educators to choose the tuition waiver recipients for them. The only thing the legislator does is shows up for a ceremony where the letter is formally presented by the lawmaker to the student – with a photograph taken that can then be distributed to all the neighborhood newspapers and other entities that will gladly promote the lawmaker.

Also, some legislators don’t give out two four-year waivers. They prefer to give out eight one-year waivers – four to the University of Illinois and four to other public colleges. Why get credit for sending two kids to college this year when you can claim to have sent eight, is the way they do it.

Personally, this perk doesn’t offend me too much – except for those who persist in calling it a “scholarship” even though no money ever changes hands. If anything, Quinn might be guilty of trying to create the impression that he’s making some significant change that will save the state millions upon millions of dollars – when it won’t.

IN FACT, A reading of a story published by the State Journal-Register newspaper of Springfield about this very issue convinced me that too many people are going to play partisan politics and try to make themselves out to be serious budget-crunchers by supporting Quinn’s rhetoric.
... Gov. Pat Quinn intervenes.

Which means that instead of some politician trying to make him (or her)self look good by helping to put a kid through college, we’ll get some politician trying to make her (or him)self look good by voting for a rather miniscule budget cut.

At least with the tuition waiver, there is the chance that at least a few of the recipients were able to use them to help bolster their educations (instead of spending all their time hanging around the Sigma Chi house in Champaign).

Who benefits if the politicos focus their attention in the miniscule cuts, and wind up doing nothing of more substance to try to balance out the Illinois state government budget?


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