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Misusing Lottery Money

California’s schoolchildren, billed as the big winners when the state lottery was on the ballot, are being cheated. The money pouring into the lottery as Californians try to win pots like Saturday’s $44.3 million is supposed to enrich school programs just as it enriched four winners last weekend. Instead, too many school districts are using the money for salaries and other day-to-day operations. That is exactly what the lottery’s opponents feared, and the situation creates an unwise dependency on gambling and an unfortunate distortion of the schools’ financial picture.

Even as Lotto fever swept the state, Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig threw cold water on the misguided notion that the proceeds are adding valuable programs to the public schools. State law earmarks one-third of the lottery revenues for public education. Lottery advocates assured voters during the 1984 campaign that created the game that the money would be a bonus for the schools rather than supplanting existing support.

It hasn’t happened that way. Financially hard-pressed school districts are using the money not for extras like library books and computers but rather for basics like salaries and textbooks. In a recent report to the Legislature, Honig said a survey of 841 of the state’s approximately 1,000 school districts showed that they spend more than half their lottery money on salaries and benefits. Another 14% is spent on maintenance and equipment and 13% on books and supplies.

That’s certainly true in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which last year received $83.4 million in lottery money and spent nearly 85% of it on basic operating costs, mainly teachers’ salaries. The district is also counting on lottery money to help provide salary increases under whatever contract agreement it reaches with the United Teachers of Los Angeles union. Today people appear hooked on the lottery so that may seem a winning proposition. But it’s a bad gamble--and a bad example for children--in the long run.

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As lottery earnings have increased, Honig says, the amount the state spends on each student has decreased. Adjusted for inflation, the amount dropped by $46 during the last school year and may do so again this year. This, at a time when the demands on public schools have never been higher: Teachers deserve higher pay, half the students who enroll at some high schools drop out before graduation and more teachers are needed to instruct the 140,000 additional students who are flooding California schools each year. Neither local school administrators nor state officials should be allowed to substitute lottery earnings for basic support from the state’s general fund.

The lottery is a game of chance. It’s time it was used to give schools the true chance to enrich their students, not just struggle to pay basic bills. At least someone--Bill Honig--has finally pointed a finger at a growing problem.


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