Marcie Gutierrez, a teacher at John Hay Elementary on Chicago’s West Side, wanted help paying for school when she attended the University of Illinois at Chicago to further her education. So she applied for a legislative scholarship from Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), whose district includes her school.
Gutierrez, however, didn’t live in Ford’s district.
Illinois’ General Assembly Scholarship Program law requires winners to live in the district of the lawmaker who awards them free tuition to a public university.
Gutierrez isn’t alone. A team of Columbia College Chicago journalists in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News identified three other scholarship winners over the last five years who lived outside the district of the legislator who selected them. This discovery follows a 1998 audit by the Illinois Auditor General’s office that found 19 out of 194 scholarship recipients randomly selected for verification did not live in their nominating lawmaker’s district.
It’s not surprising that state officials didn’t catch the out-of-district winners because it’s left up to each of the 163 lawmakers who hand out the free tuition to monitor themselves. Fourteen other state legislators don’t participate.
Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said her agency merely handles paperwork for the century-old program, acting simply as a middle man. “Our role is so limited . . . It’s up to the legislators to make good decisions.”
Just one board employee handles the paperwork along with other unrelated duties. Up until this fall when she retired, it was secretary Alison Harbour who processed the forms for the 1,000-plus recipients each year.
“It was tough,” said Harbour, who worked 25 years for the agency. “We were short-staffed because of the budget and all that, so it was difficult.”
There used to be one position at the board dedicated solely to the scholarship program, she said, but in recent years, financial constraints meant she had to perform other duties as well.
Harbour’s job – now being handled by another person at the state agency – consisted of making sure lawmakers and their nominees submitted two forms that contain basic information, like the student’s home address and the value of the scholarship, which in 2007-2008 was worth an average of $8,300.
She would then enter this information into databases. A review of the last six years of records entered in the electronic database – obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request – shows that over 8,000 scholarships worth more than $50 million were awarded.
But information for hundreds of students is incomplete because winners routinely fail to list the accurate value of their waivers on the forms. Harbour said it’s the universities that know the true cost of each waiver.
Harbour said she did her best during her five years managing the program to get as much information as possible but noted it’s up to lawmakers and their nominees to complete the paperwork.
No one at the Illinois Board of Education or the Illinois Student Assistance Commission – the other state agency mentioned in the scholarship law – checks to see that the forms are filled out correctly or verifies that each recipient lives in the nominating lawmaker’s district.
“We don’t have the ability to enforce,” said Matt Vanover, senior spokesman for the state education board. “That is solely the legislators’ discretion.”
Lawmakers have the option of delegating the selection of winners to a third party, a practice recommended by higher education experts concerned about the lack of regulation of Illinois’ program. That’s where the student assistance commission could step in.
But communications director Paul Palian notes his agency can perform that role only if lawmakers ask for help. The student assistance commission has never been tapped for this job, Palian said. “Historically, we have not really had any role.”
One of the program’s most-vocal opponents, Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville), said if the program is to continue – he wants it abolished – the selection must be delegated to a more objective party.
“I don’t think you can reform this system,” but if it remains, Black said he prefers that it be part of the student assistance commission.
Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, notes that many lawmakers have created committees to screen and select winners. “But there has been no real system-wide push” for accountability and consistency among all members of the General Assembly, she said.
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, thinks the program could be salvaged with regulation. “Either the legislature could set up a process in the statute, or they could give it to the state Board of Higher Education to set up a process that would make it uniform and minimize conflicts of interest.”
Others like Daniel Stasi, executive director of the Illinois School Counselor Association, say they don’t think more restrictions are the answer.
“I think if there are people who don’t have a better sense of ethics, they should be voted out of office by their constituents.”
In 2000, Stasi’s son received a legislative scholarship for two semesters of free tuition from then-Sen. Kathy Parker (R-Northbrook). Stasi said his son and many other students who’ve received the scholarships over the years could not have attended college without help from the “tremendous” program. He said he’s been asked to serve on a legislator’s selection committee in the past but declined to avoid any conflict of interest.
“I guess you could write regulations and restrictions, and maybe they would help,” Stasi said. “It comes down to our individual legislators exercising good judgment. And I think most of them are.”
Emily Capdevielle, Nicole Leonhardt and Nicholas Myers contributed to this story.
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