In last week’s State of the State Address, Governor McCrory outlined a proposal to make some changes to the way school districts can spend lottery funds. Similar changes are found in House Bill 97. Under current legislation, lottery funds can be used for class size reduction, prekindergarten for at-risk students, college scholarships and capital funds (essentially money used to construct new schools). H.B. 97 would allow expanding the permitted use of lottery funds to include digital learning needs such as school connectivity and digital textbooks.
Education research demonstrates a clear link between increased student achievement and the programs that the lottery currently supports. There is also emerging research supporting the use of digital textbooks and demonstrating the fiscal and educational benefits of increased connectivity and use of technology to engage today’s students in the classroom as Gov. McCrory and the legislature have recognized.
But allowing more flexibility in the way lottery funds are spent is unlikely to have any positive impact on student achievement in North Carolina. It simply allows districts to pick and choose between which vital educational inputs they provide rather than giving districts what they need to provide a high-quality education. Because of legislation passed at the height of the Great Recession, school districts already have an incredible amount of flexibility on how they use state money that would otherwise be earmarked for specific purposes.
This continues a longstanding trend of the use of lottery money. In spite of ever-increasing lottery revenues, overall state funding for education has declined to the point where North Carolina spends less on education today than it did before the lottery was implemented because every dollar that the lottery provides is used to supplant funds that otherwise would have gone to education through the General Fund.
The best way to expand access to educational resources is to increase the overall pot of funding rather than by simply moving money around. For example, access to digital textbooks could be increased by reinstating the massive amount of funding that has been cut from state textbook funds in recent years. Since 2010, textbook funding has declined from about $116 million to $26 million, an 80% reduction.
Loosening up the strings attached to lottery funds, which account for just 4% of state education funding, won’t change the dire financial circumstances our schools find themselves in as they strive to modernize the state’s education system. The only way to do that is to make a commitment to providing the resources our underfunded schools and under-served students so desperately need.