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Serving the Lottery Pie

March 17, 1985

The promise of a brand-new crop of money for schools was the lure that was used to win voter support last November for the creation of a California state lottery. The chances are that the lottery would have passed anyway. Of the 17 state games operating at the time, only three specified that the state's profit go to assist education. The real interest was the opportunity to bet a buck on the outside chance of striking it rich. But perhaps it helped some people rationalize a yes vote to know that the schools would benefit in the process.

The problem is that Proposition 37 was vague about what to do with the money once the lottery started raking it in. The ballot measure stipulated only that the funds be used "exclusively for the education of pupils and students," and they were to supplement present school financing rather than take the place of any current money.

Now it is up to the Legislature to write a formula for the distribution of the funds to the public schools and colleges and universities--as much as $500 million a year. Dangle that much money in front of 120 lawmakers, and some if not all are bound to have ideas about how to use it. Proposals have been made to earmark the lottery income for specific purposes, such as reduction of class size or enhancement of mathematics and science instruction.

What the Legislature should do, however, is keep its hands--and strings--off the money. It should heed the plea of the California School Boards Assn. that each of the state's 1,029 boards of education gets to decide how to use its share. Measured against $16 billion in total annual school costs, the windfall is not all that great.

The Legislature also should resist the temptation to roll the money in with other state aid to schools so that it becomes part of the basic assistance program. As a somewhat dubious and unpredictable source of government funds, lottery money should be kept in a class by itself.

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