South Carolina voters will decide next month whether to authorize a state lottery designed to pay for college scholarships, free master’s degrees for teachers, and technology grants to schools.
Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, was elected in 1998 on a platform calling for an “education lottery.”
His plan for how to spend the $150 million or more that such a lottery is expected to generate would funnel most of the money to college scholarships, modeled after the lottery program in neighboring Georgia.
If the measure on the Nov. 7 ballot passes, South Carolina will join the 37 states and the District of Columbia that currently run lotteries; of those, 18 use at least half their revenues for education, according to the National Association of State and Provincial Lotteries in Willoughby Hills, Ohio.
Under the South Carolina governor’s plan, two-thirds of the profits from the proposed lottery would go to provide students with as much as $4,000 a year toward the cost of attending four-year, in-state colleges; free tuition for all classes at the state’s system of two-year colleges; and no-cost master’s degrees for all public school teachers.
The rest of the money—expected to be about $45 million the first year—would be designated for technology grants to schools and colleges. Mr. Hodges said the move would make South Carolina the country’s highest-spending state per student on school technology.
But his campaign for what he calls a valuable new source of money for education is meeting resistance from people who condemn a lottery as state-sanctioned gambling.
The anti-lottery coalition includes political and religious leaders, from conservative to moderate—even the bishop of the church to which the governor belongs, the United Methodists.
“I certainly have respect for the bishop, and he and I have agreed to disagree on this issue,” Mr. Hodges said in an interview. “I just tell him I see a different moral crisis out there: Families that can’t send their kids to college, and schools that desperately need help to get ahead.”
But opponents say there are better ways to pay for scholarships and computers. The state’s emerging economic prosperity can pay for those new programs, they say, just as new money has allowed $750 million for school construction, the governor’s First Steps early-childhood program, and expanded teacher training, all in the past two years.
But Gov. Hodges also wants to raise teacher salaries to the national average within six years, and he argues the combination of those new programs would leave little money for scholarships. Moreover, he argues, the lottery would be a step toward addressing a ruling by the state supreme court two years ago that directed policymakers to make the state’s schools more equitable.
“Tax increases are out of the question,” Mr. Hodges said. “There’s no appetite for that. That’s why there really aren’t any alternatives.”
‘Gambling’ on Education?
Kathy Bigham leads the opposition to the lottery. She’s a restaurant owner in Rock Hill, S.C., just south of Charlotte, N.C., and her husband once served on the local school board. The couple has two daughters in college, both of whom graduated from the local public high school.
Ms. Bigham’s entrance into politics came when she helped lead the local fight against video-poker machines, which the state supreme court ordered removed in a 1999 ruling that came just weeks before a scheduled statewide referendum on whether to keep them. The video-gambling terminals had been a common sight in convenience stores and bars across the state.
Asked by a group of ministers to lead the fight against a lottery, Ms. Bigham sees no difference between video gambling and betting on lottery tickets. She hopes people in her state reject a lottery, just as Alabama voters did a year ago.
“On the one hand, we just said no to video-poker gambling by individuals, but we’re going to turn around as a state government and approve gambling for education?” she said. “It doesn’t matter what good comes from this money, it’s the wrong way to get it.”
Ms. Bigham also argues that voters can’t be sure how the lottery proceeds would be spent.
She points out that if a lottery is approved, the governor’s spending plan must be passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, and could be changed under future leadership.
“I would like to see us have more equipment and technology in the classroom,” she said. “But I don’t want to gamble on those things.”
While some educators support Gov. Hodges on the issue, based in part on his education accomplishments so far, some clearly don’t.
Richard K. Jensen, who teaches journalism at North Greenville College in Tigerville, S.C., has gathered signatures from about 1,000 educators opposing the ballot measure, forming Palmetto Educators Against the Lottery, or PEAL.
He sees a lottery as “reverse Robin Hoodism,” because he said it would take money from the poor, in some cases, to help wealthier students attend college. “I have concerns regarding the economics and the ethics of a state-operated lottery,” he said.
Mr. Jensen also wonders why as a state legislator in the 1980s, Mr. Hodges fought against a lottery, calling it bad public policy.
The governor says he simply changed his mind after seeing Georgia’s program. He says he concluded that in Georgia, few poor people buy large amounts of lottery tickets, and that the program has been helping poor students who otherwise might not be able to afford college.
“Rather than creating problems for poorer citizens, it was creating opportunities for people to go to college that had never had that opportunity before,” Mr. Hodges said.
If voters approve the lottery plan, South Carolina students would get help with higher education in many ways.
Teachers would be able to study toward master’s degrees at state universities free of tuition, under the governor’s plan. Computer courses and other job-training courses would also be tuition-free at the state’s system of two-year technical colleges.
Thousands of students in South Carolina attend the technical colleges to take basic courses such as English composition or algebra, before transferring to four-year colleges. Combined with federal money such as Pell Grants, the lottery-funded scholarships would mean students could take those courses for free.
Students at four-year colleges, public or private, could get $2,000 a year for a B average, plus another $2,000 for a combined score of at least 1000 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT. Thanks to an existing merit-based scholarship worth $3,000 annually, South Carolina students could qualify for $7,000 a year from the state.