When the N.C. General Assembly was debating joining other states that allowed state-sponsored lotteries, I was one of the public voices opposing the bill. Passage of the bill required overcoming an odd coalition of religiously conservative Republicans who opposed the lottery as a form of forbidden gambling and liberal Democrats who opposed the lottery because it preyed on the poor and uneducated.
But the lottery passed with the unrelenting, insistent support of then-Gov. Mike Easley and others who decried the "loss" of N.C. dollars to lottery tickets sold in South Carolina and Virginia and who promised that all of the profits from lottery sales would bolster public education. Supporters went so far as to name the state lottery the "North Carolina Education Lottery," as if the games would educate the state's residents.
Years later, and with millions of dollars going into lottery sales and a few North Carolinians winning lottery jackpots, it is apparent that the promises of lottery supporters were all lies. The lottery has not meant a bonanza for the state, and it has not improved education. In fact, a News & Observer op-ed column points out, North Carolina is spending less on public education per capita today than it did before all those promises were made.
There has been no windfall for public schools. The "Education Lottery" has not benefited public education. Instead, legislators have done what they claimed they wouldn't do. They have allowed lottery money to substitute for education funding from other sources. Legislators have cut per capita education spending even as lottery profits have fattened state coffers.
Meanwhile, the fears of Democratic opponents have come true: Lottery ticket sales are highest in the poorest communities. Many poor people foolishly spend their limited incomes on lottery tickets even as family needs go unmet. The lottery is most popular among the least educated, people who don't seem to comprehend that the odds of winning a lottery jackpot are worse than the odds of being struck by lightning.
Education lottery? It would be more honest to call it the Lack of Education Lottery or the Lack of Education Funding Lottery.