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Don't be fooled, lottery is not helping education as it proclaims

HOWARD TROXLER
Published November 3, 2003

One drawback to sticking around for a while and paying attention is that you remember old promises made to the public.

Why is that such a drawback? Because it upsets the stomach. It is so much easier to believe blissfully in whatever is being said at the moment.

The topic at hand is the Florida Lottery. Twice recently, I found myself actually yelling at my television because of the lottery's latest commercials.

The narrator brags about how much money the lottery has raised for education. Among the feats of which the commercial boasts is the construction of "100 new schools."

Listen:

THE LOTTERY WAS NOT SUPPOSED TO BUILD SCHOOLS.

The fact that lottery money is building schools at all is not something to brag about. It is something to be ashamed of.

The lottery was promised to the people of Florida as a way to "enhance" education. Every dollar, we were told in the 1986 campaign, was supposed to be an extra bonus, gravy for the kids of Florida, on top of what we were already spending.

Instead, here is the truth:

Education is worse off in Florida since the lottery began.

Education got almost 61 percent of Florida's general revenue in 1986-87, the year the voters approved the lottery. Today, it is getting only 53 percent.

The lottery provided the Legislature an excuse to take away from education. While lottery dollars came in the front door, the Legislature took away dollars out the back door.

Besides the loss of budget share, the Florida Lottery has a secondary bad effect - it has added to voter reluctance to support other ways of increasing school funding.

There is a widespread voter misperception that the lottery has somehow "solved" education in Florida.

Just the opposite. Lottery dollars represent only a small fraction of Florida's total school budget. But you wouldn't know it from the lottery's own advertising, which relentlessly talks about how much ticket sales "help education."

The lottery's Web site says its mission is "to inform the public about the significance of lottery funding to the state's overall system of public education."

If that were really true, then here is what the lottery's advertising would say:

"Listen up, Florida! We're glad you're buying lottery tickets. But no matter what you think, lottery revenues are still only a drop in the bucket of what Florida's schools need."

Until 1997, we kept up the pretense that the lottery was supposed to "enhance" schools. But that year, Democrats and Republicans got together and decided they could not resist taking lottery money for construction.

Led by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, they created a program called "Classrooms First" (heck, who could be opposed to that?) that would use lottery money to pay off construction bonds. Today, $180-million a year goes to paying off that debt.

Another big use of lottery money is to pay for the state's "Bright Futures" scholarships, which are based on academic merit. It is interesting, and typical, that Florida would use a lottery for such a purpose - relying on ticket sales, which come disproportionately from poor people, to pay for academic scholarships, which go disproportionately to the better-off.

In essence, we are relying on poorer suckers to pay everybody else's freight. Don't worry, it's working just fine.

My criticism of the Florida Lottery is limited only to its spreading of the misperception that it helps education, when it actually represents a net loss to Florida's schools. But I voted for its creation back in 1986 with open eyes, on the simple grounds that it would be, you know, fun to have.

Ralph Turlington, the former education commissioner who became the godfather of the lottery campaign in 1986, made another promise then that didn't get kept. He said that if the lottery passed, he would ask for periodic votes every two to four years on whether to keep it.

"If it's going to be a mistake," he said, "you can build it in at the beginning where you can vote it out."

Promises, promises.

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