The Illinois General Assembly scholarships have become a family affair for dozens of siblings who’ve secured tens of thousands of dollars in free tuition to the state’s public universities since 2003.
There’s just one main requirement in the century-old state law that created the legislative scholarship program: Applicants must live in the awarding lawmaker’s district. Beyond that, each of the 163 lawmakers who participate can award the scholarships however they see fit, including giving the tuition waivers to members of the same family.
Take the Maier sisters. Mallory and Paige Maier of Crossville were awarded free tuition in 2008 for a year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, courtesy of Rep. David Reis (R-Olney). They met the lawmaker through their father, White County Sheriff Doug Maier. Mallory Maier said in an e-mail that she got to know Reis, a local Republican like her dad, by volunteering for political campaigns and “going to all the dinners with my father during his election.”
Then there are the Paceys of Paxton. Sarah, Edward, John and Robert Pacey each received a legislative scholarship from Rep. Shane Cultra (R-Onarga); they’re the offspring of Ford County Presiding Judge Stephen Pacey.
When asked about his children’s scholarships, Judge Pacey said he’s familiar with The Chicago Tribune report that found lawmakers gave at least 140 scholarships to the relatives of their campaign donors and 87 to family members with other political ties. But he insisted that’s not how his three sons and one daughter were awarded legislative scholarships.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” he said. “You want to look at Chicago lawmakers instead.”
Critics say they’re not surprised that politically connected families have benefited from the little-known program that waives tuition and fees each year for hundreds of students.
Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman, said he doesn’t want to discount the possibility of brilliance running in a family, but he remains skeptical.
“Many of these just go to families with clout,” Simpson said.
Cindi Canary, executive director of the watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, agrees: “You’ve got to know how the system works to even know that legislators have got the power to hand these things out . . . It’s set up to benefit insiders.”
Like other Illinois families fretting about how to pay the rising cost of college, at least one household with multiple scholarship winners was looking for ways to save money.
Barb Calderone of Plainfield wanted to lower expenses for her two college-age children, especially her son Phil, a sophomore electrical engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“She’d done some research online, looking for scholarships,” the 2008 scholarship recipient said. Thanks to the legislative waiver, he ended up needing less aid for living expenses and didn’t have to worry about finding a job his freshman year, the only year he received the scholarship.
“My mom is very on top of scholarships,” said his sister Lauren Calderone, a 2004 recipient. “She was always asking me if I’d filled out the application yet.”
Both scholarship recipients said neither of their parents is politically involved.
A 2008 graduate of the University of Illinois, Lauren Calderone said the only odd thing about the scholarship process was that Rep. Tom Cross (R-Plainfield) didn’t promote it more. “I had to go looking for it, and then I literally had to go to his office to pick up the application.”
That, said political scientist Simpson, is part of the problem. “There aren’t that many applicants; no one knows how to apply for the program, so it fails on all counts.”
Rep. Bill Black, a long-time opponent of the legislative scholarships who’s pushing legislation to eliminate them, said lawmakers don’t publicize the program because they want only a very small number of applicants. “The more applicants they get, the harder it is for them to control who wins,” the Danville Republican said.
Government watchdog advocate Canary agrees, calling the program “a perk of office that was to be quietly doled out.”
Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, said the program should be abolished. Barring that, he said, the application process needs a “third party participating in the review so that it’s clear that they’re not being given away on political grounds.”
Dozens of lawmakers use review committees to select winners, a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists found in a three-month investigation done in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News. But other legislators do not.
Earlier this fall in The Daily Illini, Eric, Katie and Kelsey Green defended the program, writing that critics should “advocate for positive change, perhaps using our representative as a model; don’t just fling insults without regard for who you hurt.”
The three siblings – Eric, now a grad student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Katie, a junior at the school and Kelsey, a freshman – each received a scholarship from Rep. JoAnn Osmond (R-Antioch) but “not because of free rides to politically connected students,” they wrote. The legislative scholarships have made college affordable for the trio, whose parents now work as a bookkeeper and a building code inspector.
Katie Green said in an interview that her family learned of the scholarship through the guidance department at Antioch High School, which receives application forms each year from Rep. Osmond’s office.
Osmond, like many of the 162 other participating lawmakers, appoints a third-party committee to handle the selection.
“Joann is not even aware of the applicants,” Katie Green said. “The committee doesn’t have any sort of loyalty to her. It’s based on merit.”
Laura Lane contributed to this story.
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Part II coming Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009