Guest opinion: Lottery’s broken promise
Kentucky sells a lottery ticket every 35 seconds. Throngs of people, drawn by the promise of a $1.5 billion jackpot, rushed to buy tickets before the Powerball drawing earlier this month. Many perhaps justified their purchase by assuring themselves that the money they spent would go towards education. The Kentucky Lottery even encourages this line of thinking with their “Where the Money Goes” television advertisement, which features the slogan “Fueling Imagination, Funding Education.” But does it really? The Powerball jackpot is not the only billion-dollar behemoth. In the past 10 years, there has been nearly one billion dollars’ worth of unmet need among Kentucky’s students, a fact that is exacerbated by the underfunding of two grants called the College Assistance Program (CAP) and the Kentucky Tuition Grant (KTG). According to KRS 154A.130, after paying operating costs, lottery revenue is to be broken up in three ways: 1. Three million dollars of lottery money must go to state literacy programs; 2. 45 percent of the remainder must go towards the Kentucky Education Excellence Scholarship (KEES), which is a merit-based higher-education grant; and 3. 55 percent of the remainder must go towards CAP and KTG, which are need-based higher-education grants. Over the past five years, the literacy programs and KEES were nearly always fully funded. However, according to the Student Voice Team’s analysis of the Kentucky state budget from Fiscal Year 2012 through FY 2016, CAP and KTG were unlawfully underfunded by an average of $28 million annually, a full 23.5 percent less than they were supposed to receive. This money is dispersed among other state programs, likely to cushion the budget from the effects of the recent recession. Despite this chronic underfunding, the General Assembly passed a law in 2014 that allows the Kentucky Lottery to run advertisements that brand the lottery as a key source of funding for higher-education financial aid. Recently, the problem has gotten worse. In FY 2012, CAP and KTG were underfunded by almost $24 million. But in FY 2016, these two need-based aid grants were underfunded by nearly $34 million, limiting access to aid for between 15,000 and 20,000 students. Kyla Lockett is one such student. The STEAM Academy junior has “no idea how (she is) going to afford (college)” but hopes to qualify for state scholarships. What Kyla doesn’t know is that the odds are stacked against her. She has just a 1 in 3 chance of getting awarded the money she so desperately needs. Jake Porter, a senior at Henry Clay, voiced similar concerns. “The lack of financial aid is already crippling to some, and we don’t need to make it worse,” he said. The problem is neither new nor unique to Kentucky. A 2007 New York Times study discovered lottery money was diverted from its intended purpose in nearly all of the 42 states it examined, as well as the District of Columbia. And the state of Virginia went so far as to ignore its own constitution when it allocated lottery money to state programs other than education. Advocates in other states have campaigned, unsuccessfully, to stop the practice for years. This is an opportunity for the commonwealth to be a national leader simply by funding need-based aid at the level outlined in the law. Currently, three-fifths of eligible Kentucky students who apply for CAP grants and one-third of eligible Kentucky students who apply for KTG grants are denied. The value of investing in these students cannot be overstated: if Kentucky were to increase the number of matriculating students by 5 percent, it would generate an additional $900 million in state revenue. Applying for higher-education grants shouldn’t be a gamble. The Kentucky Lottery was justified by politicians because the money would fund student aid. That Powerball promise has been broken. We now have an opportunity and a moral imperative to fix it. The futures of tens of thousands of Kentucky’s low-income students should not be left to chance. Eliza Jane Schaeffer chairs the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team’s School Governance Committee. She is also a senior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington.