A Half-Loaf of Scholarship Reform

March 06, 1995

In drafting a measure to reform Maryland's legislative scholarship program, state Senate leaders have concocted a proposal they call "the best we can do."

As bests go, we've seen better.

The measure would replace the senatorial scholarship kitty with something called the Free State Community Scholarship Program. The main alteration? All grant recipients and grant amounts would be determined by nine-member committees representing each senatorial district. Each committee would consist of five local and state education officials, plus four appointees named by that district's senator.

Many legislators already appoint committees to award the $8.5 million in taxpayer-funded scholarships that often go to undeserving children of the politicians' friends, associates and constituents, and sometimes to the pols' own relatives. So this is hardly monumental reform. It might dilute the senators' influence on the program, but they will still have control of a matter in which they should not be involved at all.

Most important to them, they will still be able to mail out letters of congratulations to constituent families who receive awards -- with the message "Don't forget me at election time" winking between the lines.

This proposal is made even more problematic by the number of thorny questions it raises.

For example, what happens to the House of Delegates portion of the scholarship program? Does anyone in Annapolis really expect the delegates to relinquish their share of this patronage perk while the senators are allowed to continue with theirs? Will the delegates, who have voted in recent years to abolish the program outright, kill the Senate proposal and thus preserve the current system? Might the same result unfold if the proposal is amended on the Senate floor, where there is sentiment for abolition, and the measure's authors then move to sabotage their own creation?

We're skeptical, not only because of these questions but also because the legislators have gone to such embarrassing lengths in the past to save this program, the only one of its kind in the nation. Still, a half-loaf of reform might indeed be the best that can be expected from the unyielding folks in the Senate, for now. But should the measure pass, it must be seen as no more than a first step toward the only reform that is acceptable -- total abolition of the legislative scholarship giveaway.

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