Somebody needs to save Louisiana lawmakers from themselves before they ruin a program that gives deserving kids from all corners of the state a chance to attend Tulane University on scholarship. I'm talking, of course, about the infamous Tulane legislative scholarship program.
Let me say from the get-go that I have no problem with the scholarship program per se. I actually think it's great that Tulane has a scholarship program that focuses on students from Louisiana. Unfortunately, letting lawmakers dole out the scholarships tends to shift the focus away from the kids and onto the politicians, and therein lies the problem.
Two weeks ago, The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV revealed that a handful of scholarship recipients — all of whom were excellent students — were the children of politically connected parents. A few awardees had parents who donated to the political campaign funds of their legislative benefactors — and at least one scholarship recipient's parents received a solicitation from the senator who had just awarded the scholarship. Ouch.
A follow-up report turned up even more disturbing news: A surprising percentage of Tulane's baseball team had legislative scholarships. Clearly, there's room for improvement in the scholarship program.
That there have been some abuses in the Tulane legislative scholarship program is no surprise. Nearly 20 years ago, the program was a full-blown scandal. Lawmakers were giving scholarships to their own and each other's kids — one even gave it to himself. The revelations triggered howls of protest and calls for reform. Tulane offered some very good suggestions at the time, which legislators promptly ignored on their way to making a few improvements.
Let me be clear: The changes put in place after that scandal helped, but they didn't go far enough, particularly when a lawmaker can legally send a fundraising letter to the parents of a kid who just got a scholarship worth more than 10 times the legal campaign contribution limit.
This time around, the public reaction has been somewhat muted by comparison, although I've heard the predictable calls for dismantling the program altogether. A history lesson is in order.
Tulane University evolved from an institution that was once public. In the late 1800s, when that public institution was privatized, the university struck a deal with the state. (Surprise!) In return for a valuable public asset, the now-private university gave each state lawmaker authority to award an annual, one-year scholarship to Tulane. It served (and still serves) as a reminder of Tulane's public roots and historic commitment to Louisiana citizens. Nowadays, considering Tulane's enviable national rankings, it's also a great way to give deserving Louisiana kids a chance to attend a top-tier private university.
And that's where the focus should be — on the kids. Unfortunately, because a few legislators aren't particularly careful about how they go about awarding the scholarships, the focus has remained on lawmakers. Rather than scrapping the program, why not fix it?
We need not look far for a model. In New Orleans, a similar deal from years gone by gives the mayor five four-year scholarships to award each year. The 1990s scandal came to light when then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy gave his son one of those scholarships. Duh. Since then, the city has adopted several reforms that go a long way toward eliminating the potential for abuse. A committee of high school principals and counselors recommends three candidates from each council district (conveniently, there are five districts), and the mayor gets to pick one winner from each district. Mayor Mitch Landrieu takes it a step further; he asks the committee to rank the finalists, and he picks the one ranked highest.
State Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, also sets a good example. He lets Jefferson Dollars for Scholars, a local educational nonprofit that raises scholarship money on its own, recommend a deserving student from his district. He also refuses to accept campaign donations from the families of scholarship awardees.
Hopefully, lawmakers will enact those practices (and more) as law next spring. It would be a shame to punish deserving kids for the excesses of a few of our public officials.