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Lottery isn't always a boon to schools

The selling point for state lotteries was that they would steer money to education. The actual results are a bit more mixed.

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This year, millions of dollars of Indiana state lottery proceeds were poured into a teachers' retirement fund, school technology, and public-school tuition support.

Last year, the Idaho state lottery contributed $9 million to build new roofs on schoolhouses, new bleachers in school stadiums, and to buy new computers and school buses. Two years ago in California the state lottery contributed a record $1.11 billion to public education.

All this sounds good. But the story behind lottery money for education is more complicated, and not as rosy.

"The proceeds from state lotteries are less than you might think," says Molly Burke, researcher at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "Even if they're all earmarked toward education, it isn't a huge amount. It's never quite as much as states would like the schools and the taxpayers to think."

And the proceeds go to ...

Since the 1970s and 1980s, state lotteries have been popular means of helping to fill state coffers. Today 39 states have lotteries and several more have voted to join the crowd. Many states sell the lottery concept to the public with the promise that a large portion of the proceeds will benefit public schools.

In fact, 22 states earmark portions of lottery earnings for public school spending. States such as New York, Michigan, Missouri, and Vermont plow 100 percent of their lottery gains back into public education.

Yet, while the public may believe that means a net gain for schools, that's not always the case.

Many times, says the Rev. Richard McGowan, a professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, "you're really allowing the state to spend the money in other places rather than the schools. It's not a bonus for the schools but a substitution."

Sometimes what ends up happening is that schools achieve a small gain through the lottery.


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