Hedging My Bets

Hedging My Bets

A teacher down on gambling with education daydreams a little.

I have never bought a lottery ticket, so I guess I’m unlikely to win. I was a Richmond school teacher in 1984, when a ballot initiative brought the lottery to California. The promoters sold it on the promise that it would fund schools. “Schools Win Too!” was their campaign slogan. My teacher colleagues and I—every one of us—did not believe them. Our campaign slogan was, “Don’t gamble with our children’s education!”

Only a few years earlier, in 1978, Proposition 13 had taken away a huge chunk of the residential and commercial property taxes that had lifted California’s educational system up among the top 10 in the nation. By the time the lottery was on the ballot, oops! Many voters realized that school funding was plummeting. And here came the lottery with promises to fix the schools.

We teachers had to accept that we lost the lottery argument; the vote was 58 percent yes to our 42 percent no. Now, after 32 years, we can ask lottery supporters that snide question: “How’s that working out for you?”

The results of many studies of state lotteries are in. I had worried that a lottery would hurt the families of my lower-income students without helping their educations. This was one of those predictions I hoped I wasn’t right about. But sure enough: More than 50 percent of ticket-buyers live below the poverty line, and many of the poorest spend up to 9 percent of their income on the games, all of which are designed to attract less-educated players.

Standing in line to pay for gas, I watched a mother who had walked, in her worn plastic sandals, to the minimart with one child by the hand and the other in her stroller. She bought half a gallon of way-too-expensive milk and a $3 Ladybug Bingo Scratchers card. The next customer was a man in his 30s who looked like he’d been digging out a foundation he had so much dust on his work pants and the back of his shirt. He bought a cold lemonade and a “SecondChance” ticket. Just as we teachers predicted, such easy access to gambling is a tax on the poor.

That little habitual purchase is for many people a source of dreams, and the only treat and entertainment in their day. And it’s so tempting, because it keeps alive the only hope, however slim, of ever having a meaningful amount of money.

What about the money? In 1984, when we teachers lost, we told each other, “OK, then, let the education money roll in!”

The lottery’s own website admits that the money contributed is only 1 percent of the whole budget of California education. Oh.

It’s only the way we think we fund our schools. The actual amount of the money is subject to fluctuations in the popularity of the lottery games on offer. I’m not surprised to learn that when unemployment rises, so do lottery profits. That’s how hope and despair interact, I suppose. But schools need reliable sources of funds. I can think of better ways to raise education money. What about taxing oil and gas profits from our state? The children of Richmond, where I live, and where we all breathe whatever Chevron puts into the air, could have some of the finest schools in America.

Somehow, even with the lottery, California sank to last—50th!—in the national rankings of per pupil spending for K-12 and stayed there for years. Only recently, with a spurt of money from taxpayers (thank you!) who passed Proposition 30, which is a sales tax on all of us and a tax on high incomes, and with our economy improving, we have risen to—depending on the survey—either 39th or 46th place.

The lottery seems entrenched here and in 43 other states. A brand new lottery headquarters building just opened in Sacramento and cost $58 million. Sigh.

At the gas station, I feel I’m already gambling—with the climate—just by filling up, but I look at the colorful lottery ads, wondering (always the teacher), why they don’t seem to like spaces between words? If I were to place a bet, would I choose PowerBall? SuperLottoPlus? My favorite name, I decide, is Fantasy5, and I go ahead and let myself dream. What if, say, someone bought a ticket for me? And what if, by a miracle, I won? What would I do?

I would do a Stephen Colbert! He recently funded every single teacher’s grant request in his home state of South Carolina, giving those lucky teachers $800,000.

Fantasizing about my riches, I checked the website where Berkeley teachers apply for community grants: BerkeleyPublicSchoolsFund.org.

Yes, they need small amounts for robot-making stuff; for taking the class to a play; for buying binders for the kids . . . and more. I don’t want those teachers to buy whatever robots need and those tickets and binders out of their own pockets!

I hope that somehow, without violating my vow to never, ever, buy a ticket to that stupid lottery, I can win! l


Melody Ermachild Chavis lives in Richmond and is the author of Meena, Heroine of Afghanistan, The Martyr Who Founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

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