Legislators get boost from high school civics class, advance Tulane scholarship restrictions

Out of the half-dozen bills floating around the State Capitol that would make changes to the Tulane scholarship program, the only one that has gotten any traction, so far, is the one written by a 10th-grade civics class in Washington Parish.

House Bill 307 sponsored by state Rep. Harold Ritchie, emerged as the bill most likely to reach Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk when it passed out of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday without opposition.

HB307 would put some restrictions on the 130-year-old Tulane legislative scholarship program.

The program grants each of the Legislature’s 144 members the power each year to award a one-year scholarship to the recipient of their choice. The scholarships are worth more than $46,000 each, or roughly $7 million annually.

The program has long been looked at as a perk prone to abuse by legislators. The most egregious acts came in the 1990s when it was found that scholarships were being traded for political favors, and a large number of lawmakers used them to send their own relatives to Tulane for free.

A number of bills that would’ve scrapped the program entirely, or taken it out of the hands of the Legislature or placed restrictions on how they are awarded, have all died in the past two days.

But Ritchie’s bill survived. HB307 would prohibit legislators from awarding scholarships to relatives or any student or immediate family member of a student who has given a campaign contribution to the nominating legislator.

The legislator could, however, award the scholarship provided the campaign funds are returned to the donor.

The bill would also require the name of the recipient, what parish they come from and what legislative district they live in to be published on Tulane’s website.

Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, said the bill was written in large part by Randall Ginn’s 10th-grade Franklinton High School civics class.

Ritchie said Ginn invited him to talk about the program after the high schoolers read about the scholarship in the news.

“It was kind of a challenge from them for me to come in and explain the program,” Ritchie said. “They were really concerned about having an open process and a process where everybody had a shot. I said ‘OK, but y’all have to help me write the bill.’ I guess I’m about as smart as a 10th-grader.”

HB307 now heads to the Senate for further consideration.

While most of the talk surrounding the scholarship program has been centered on whether or not they can be abused, Tulane had a number of representatives at the State Capitol Wednesday to urge lawmakers to keep the program intact.

Third-year student Sean Saxon Jr., of Baton Rouge, said he and others like him would have opted to go to college out of state if not for the Tulane scholarship program. He said getting rid of the scholarship would be “an awful idea.”

Tulane undergraduate Dean James MacLaren agreed. He said the program is worth it to the university despite the multi-million dollar price tag. Out of the 6,400 undergraduates currently enrolled, only 800 are originally from Louisiana, he said.

The scholarships “provide an opportunity to keep talented students in the state,” MacLaren said. “Once they stay here, they put down roots and that’s a good thing for the state’s economy.”

The cost “is not a small thing, but it’s worthwhile,” he added.