Stop Obsessing About Lottery Funds and Education

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Can we stop pretending that lottery funds mean much of anything to schools?

In recent weeks, we have seen the recycling of a very old faux-scandal—that the state lottery is not producing enough money for California schools. The occasion for this latest news was a state auditor’s report finding that the lottery is not producing all that money for education.

It never has. Lottery funds have represented less than 2 percent of state education money ever since 1984. Indeed, the lottery wasn’t really about schools. As I’ve written previously, the lottery idea was created by a petition company that was looking to drum up its ballot initiative business in the early 1980s; the company convinced an out-of-state lottery company to pay them, and voters went along.

Unfortunately, the bogus idea from that 1984 campaign—that the lottery is a big source of funding for schools—endures. And it gives conservatives a reason to advance skepticism about school funding, as State Sen. Ling Ling Chang did recently. 

The lottery money is so small, and the misconceptions about it so enduring, that the schools would probably be better off without the lottery or its money.

What this state needs is a huge and permanent increase in school funding that actually goes to students—lengthening the school day and the school year, and adding more and better instruction in science, math, the arts and special ed. To get that money will require not just more taxes but stopping the out-of-control growth of retirement benefits for employees.

A few more pennies from the lottery won’t do that. 

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