The lottery, the under-educated and school finance
The biggest myth about the Texas Lottery over the years has been that it was going to put public education on Easy Street. It does raise money for education – it transferred more than $1.6 billion to the Foundation School Fund in fiscal 2019 – but that’s only a small part of the $50 billion-plus spent on Texas public schools each year.
The biggest irony about the Texas Lottery is that much of the money it raises for education is wagered by the least educated among us, and that share may grow, now that the Texas Lottery Commission is ready to launch a special partnership with Dollar General.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the Lottery Commission will make tickets available at every check-out aisle in all of the nearly 1,500 Dollar General Stores in Texas, which cater primarily to customers on low and fixed incomes.
Various studies of lotteries throughout the country have shown that lower-income people are disproportionately more likely to play the game, hoping to strike it rich on a lucky ticket. Not all poor people are under-educated, but many are.
The same Chronicle article cites a 2018 survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, which found that Texas Lottery players represented all income levels. But the survey also determined that the lower a player’s education, the more he or she spent on tickets.
Players with a high school education or no high school diploma spent almost four times the amount on lottery tickets than a person with a graduate degree. Players earning less than $20,000 a year made up the highest-spending group.
Then-Gov. Ann Richards had to twist a lot of arms to get the Legislature to approve the lottery during her administration in the early 1990s, and in doing so she, intentionally or not, helped create the myth about the lottery becoming a major funder of public education.
As the Chronicle points out, some legislators still can be heard criticizing the lottery as a “tax on poor people.” But in the end, most lawmakers find that preferable to coughing up more general revenue for schools.
Since 1997, when lottery proceeds were first dedicated to education, the lottery has contributed $24.1 billion to the Foundation School Program, the Texas Lottery Commission reports. That’s a lot of money, spread over 23 years, but it still is about half – or less – than the total public education budget for this year alone.
Deal with Dollar General revives concerns Texas Lottery is targeting low-income players