Gambling on education funding

California public schools this year are expected to have an extra $106.83 to spend on each student from kindergarten through high school -- courtesy of the state lottery. But as the state's 4.1 million schoolchildren flock back to the classroom this week, questions are being raised about how lottery funds should be spent. Some critics are even asking whether state-sponsored gambling is an appropriate funding source for public education.

Financially, the California lottery has ``shattered every record in the lottery industry'' since it began last October, says state lottery spokesman Bob Taylor. A poll shows an unprecedented 70 percent of all California adults have bought at least one lottery ticket, producing enough revenue to double the expected outlay to public schools.

But educators, government officials, and behavioral scientists have raised a number of concerns:

The public, thinking lottery money is taking care of education needs, will ease its pressure on state lawmakers to increase funding for schools, educators warn.

Last year the state spent $3,506.28 on each student, from kindergarten through high school. Even adding in the lottery's contribution -- 3 percent of the education budget, or $121.72 per student -- California still ranked below the national average on spending per pupil, says Susie Lange of the state Department of Education.

``The general public has the impression, somewhat fueled by the lottery public-relations team, that this represents a bonanza of some sort for education,'' she says. ``It's just not so. It does nothing to provide the billions of dollars needed to reduce class size, hire more teachers, and build new schools.''

A lottery obscures the responsibility of the state and the public to provide quality in public education -- not only in California but also in six other states where lottery money is channeled to schools, critics say.

Some lottery funds are not reaching the classroom because of inappropriate spending by a number of California school districts, a state commission has charged.

The law requires lottery revenues to be used solely for the education of pupils -- excluding property acquisition, school construction, and research. Some districts have spent the money on new textbooks, computers, and lab equipment. But other expenditures -- liability insurance, settling a teachers' strike, or school maintenance -- are questionable, the Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy has said.

The lottery will have a negative impact on a small minority of Californians -- including teen-agers -- who become problem gamblers as a result of the increased exposure to gambling, say physicians and social scientists who study addictive behavior.

``When a state legalizes any form of gambling, such as a lottery, you get an increase in all forms of gambling, both legal and illegal,'' says Durand F. Jacobs, chief of psychological services at Loma Linda Veterans Hospital.

His survey of teen-agers in southern California -- conducted before the state lottery began -- showed that 4 to 5 percent of the school-age children considered their own gambling behavior to be out of control. Dr. Jacobs is urging the state Lottery Commission to fund a center for gambling studies, which would look at the effect of state-sanctioned gambling on the population. Further, lottery officials say they are disconcerted by the criticism from the education community. Predictions that lottery money would supplant state funding did not prove true this year, when state lawmakers renewed their commitment to public schools by boosting spending for the fourth consecutive year.

``The primary beneficiary, the only beneficiary really, is California education,'' Mr. Taylor says. Under the formula for distributing lottery revenues, 34 percent goes to public education, 50 percent goes to lottery winners, and 16 percent goes to retailers, administrative overhead, and promotion.

But skeptics see another winner -- the companies that get multimillion-dollar state contracts to provide tickets, computer equipment, and security for the lottery. ``The lottery was not created with the intent of helping schools, not really,'' says Ned Hopkins of the California Teachers Association. ``It was created to help . . . lottery businesses make money.''

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