Other Voices: The failure of the NC lottery

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 13, 2017

If we want to know why North Carolina schools haven’t improved anywhere near as much as we need them to, we can get a pretty good insight from former state Sen. Tony Rand. It’s about our North Carolina Education Lottery and how present-day lawmakers have done exactly what many people feared they’d do with its proceeds.

Rand as much as anyone can claim responsibility for the lottery. Without his efforts in the Senate, where he served as majority leader, we wouldn’t have a lottery today. It was Rand who engineered the bill’s passage in the face of strong opposition from both the right and left. Since it began operating in 2006, the lottery has sent about $175 million to Cumberland County, where it’s been used in school construction, teacher hiring, college scholarships and financial aid, pre-kindergarten programs, hiring teacher assistants and more.

The problem is that the General Assembly has done exactly what lottery critics warned would happen: It has used lottery proceeds to substitute for regular education funding in the state budget. This was a necessary and pragmatic choice during and immediately after the recession, when state revenues took a beating and all state budgets were significantly slashed. But for the last three or four years, the state has had substantial revenue surpluses, some of which could easily have been channeled back into education. While school funding has increased somewhat, it’s never returned to pre-recession levels, when our school achievement rankings and teacher pay had risen to the midpoint among the states.

One of the big promises of the lottery was that it would channel millions of dollars into school construction, a boon to “low wealth” counties like many in this region. But interim Cumberland County school superintendent Tim Kinlaw — who has long overseen school building programs here — says lottery funding for school construction has tailed off badly after a good start. “We actually receive less capital outlay funds from the state now, which includes the lottery funds,” he said, “than we were receiving prior to the lottery.”

Why is that? It’s because the lottery revenue isn’t considered a bonus anymore. It’s no longer the means to do the extra things that raise our school systems — and our children’s potential — to excellence. Instead, it’s simply part of the diminished educational revenue stream that is dooming our schools and our kids to mediocrity.

When our school funding and our teacher pay remain in the bottom 20 percent of the country, we are all but guaranteeing that our children won’t be competitive in the global marketplace. We are ensuring that they won’t be prepared for the high-tech jobs that are appearing as we move into the worlds of robotics and machine learning.

On a more practical level, we won’t even be able to build the schools that our kids need. That troubles Rand, and it should trouble everyone in government — not to mention North Carolina parents. Rand says he likes “building schools. That helps the property taxpayer. I love the early childhood (program). I’d like to see more of that because that’s so important, how they get started.”

Rand was recently appointed to fill a vacant seat on the state Lottery Commission. We doubt that will give him any additional clout with the Republican-dominated General Assembly, but it will certainly give him a useful soapbox from which he can spread the word about the lottery’s declining impact — and our state’s failure to provide the funding that our schools and our children really need.

If our goal is mediocrity, then that’s OK. But if anyone in Raleigh wants to believe our education quest is excellence, then it’s time for them to put the money back where their mouths are.

— The Fayetteville Observer