Scholarship Scam in the Sunset?

April 08, 1995

Any chance of reforming Maryland's embarrassing legislative scholarship program lies in the hands of state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. As a leader of the conference committee that will attempt to draft a compromise measure suitable to members of both the Senate and the House of Delegates, Mr. Miller is in the crucial position of shepherding a reform that could eventually abolish the 127-year-old scholarship scam. He should make the most of this opportunity.

The conference co-leader will be House Speaker Caspar R. Taylor Jr. His colleagues have willingly voted in recent years to kill the program. The graveyard of reform has been the Senate, whose members control three-fourths of the taxpayer dollars that fund the awards. (The total amount for this year is $8.5 million.) So it is Senate President Miller who has to make concessions for the cause of serious reform. He appears willing, as even the more obstinate senators seem to have realized that the benefit they derive from personally awarding the scholarships -- often to the undeserving children of politically important people -- is not worth the mounting criticism they have drawn.

Mr. Miller already has had to twist some arms this year to gain Senate approval of a bill that would have wrested some control of the awards from the senators. Under this bill, each senator would have named four appointees to a nine-person committee overseeing the grants in each senatorial district. This was a step in the right direction. However, it fell far short of the total abolition that would remove the senators from a function in which they should not be involved at all.

The delegates recognized this and shot down the Senate bill when it came to the House. Now the matter goes to a conference. The apparent strategy of Messrs. Miller and Taylor will be to continue allowing the legislators to grant scholarships to people who "fall between the cracks," such as middle-income students who are neither needy enough for financial aid nor affluent enough to foot the entire bill for a college education. To win this provision, the lawmakers would agree to end the scholarship program at the close of the current term.

While this compromise would let the pols hand out another $30-40 million, it switches on a light at the end of the tunnel. Most reform advocates could probably tolerate four more years of the program -- the only one of its kind in the United States -- if its demise were guaranteed in 1998. The chance must be grabbed quickly; only two working days remain in the session. We urge Mr. Miller and the other conferees to take the actions that will finally dispatch the legislative scholarship program to the history books, where it belongs.

5/8

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