Judges, lawmakers diagree about tuition waivers

ILLINOIS — In the wake of a controversy over the allegedly improper distribution of college scholarships to Illinois legislators’ political friends, lawmakers and judges are disagreeing over how the state open records law applies to the confidentiality of scholarship recipients.According to a February Illinois appeals court ruling, state universities do not have to disclose the identities or any information about those who receive so-called “Illinois tuition waivers,” scholarships to state universities given by state lawmakers. The court said in Gibson v. Illinois State Board of Education, 1997 WL 66026 (Ill.App.Feb.18, 1997), that information about students receiving such scholarships was legally protected from disclosure.In a decision contested by The Chicago Tribune, the court said the state law “specifically exempts personal information maintained with respect to students receiving educational or financial services directly or indirectly from public bodies.” The court said that names and addresses are personal information, and therefore fall under exemptions found in the law and are not subject to disclosure.The Chicago Tribune has filed a motion to rehear the case, arguing that of the three judges on the intial appeals panel, only two were actually sitting when the opinion was issued. This, argue attorneys for the newspaper, makes the decision constitutionally invalid. An attorney for the university declined to comment on the case.The court’s ruling has reversed a state trial judge’s decision. However, the ruling may be of little significance because of a new state law.The law, recently passed by the Illinois General Assembly as an amendment to the Illinois School Code and Freedom of Information Act, requires that the names and addresses of waiver recipients be made public.The waivers are currently still available to state legislators to distribute to residents of their voting districts, but perhaps not for long. At least four bills have been introduced to the legislature to abolish the waivers, called General Assembly Scholarships.The court’s decision came at a time when journalists and lawmakers are taking a hard look at Illinois’ freedom of information law with thoughts of tightening loopholes and eliminating exemptions.”The current law is too weak” said John Foreman, the editor in chief of the Champaign News-Gazette, a local newspaper involved in the tuition waivers story from the beginning.Foreman said the problem with the current law, a problem this latest case drives home the need to fix, is that the law contains too many exemptions. He said the law provides no penalties for not complying, contains exemptions routinely covered by other state FOI laws and has more exemptions than laws in other states. Foreman is currently working on a task force that hopes to revise the state law.Student journalists are in agreement with the professionals. Brian Sutton, the student editor in chief of the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Daily Egyptian believes that any information dealing with money given out by the state legislature, including tuition waivers, should be released. “We have a right to see where the money is going, and that’s just what happened, state legislators were giving these waivers to friends.”Among the provisions of the new scholarship law was a requirement that all future recipients be more forthcoming, meaning that before accepting a waiver, the students now have to agree to disclose their names, addresses, schools, phone numbers, the amount of their waiver, and certification that they live in the districts represented by the lawmaker who provided the waiver. Current recipients are not affected by the law.