Why the Florida Lottery can’t fix Palm Beach County’s aging schools

florida-lotteryThe Florida Lottery boasts that it raises more than a $1 billion a year for public education, leading many Floridians to ask: Where is it all going?

The question has taken on particular resonance lately in Palm Beach County as voters mull whether to raise the county’s sales tax to 7 percent.

The proposed sales tax hike is intended, in large part, to pay for major fixes to aging public schools, and many residents are asking why those fixes can’t be paid with lottery proceeds instead.

But not only is the amount of lottery money that Palm Beach County’s public schools receive too small to cover its maintenance and repair costs, much of the  money the school district does receive is required to be used for specific purposes.

So here’s a rundown of where the lottery money goes and why only a relatively small portion makes its way into Palm Beach County’s public schools.

But first…

Does lotto money really enhance school spending? It’s debatable.


The Florida Lottery was set up in 1987 to “support improvements” in education, and lawmakers specifically declared that it “not be used as a substitute for existing resources.”

But for years a debate has raged about whether it is really enhancing education or just replacing money that the state would otherwise have provided from other sources.

That’s a difficult debate to resolve because it requires indulging in hypotheticals (if the lottery money didn’t exist, how much more would the state provide from other sources?).

But what is undeniable is that while education money has increased significantly in the last two decades, lawmakers now dedicate a smaller portion of the regular state budget to it (52 percent last year compared with 60 percent in 1986).

For this reason, some educators argue that lottery money has scarcely increased funding for the state’s public schools at all.

Regardless, it’s certainly true that the lottery has provided more than $30 billion for education since its inception in 1987.


K-12 schools get less than half of the lotto windfall

Source: State of Florida
Source: State of Florida

During the 2015-16 fiscal year, profits from lottery ticket sales contributed an estimated $1.7 billion for education across the state. But that money is divided several ways.

Among those getting a cut: Florida’s 12 state universities, 28 state colleges, 67 county school districts, and the $226 million Florida Bright Futures scholarship program, which covers tuition costs for 25,000 college students.

Public schools get the largest single share but less than half of the total amount. On paper, about 45 percent of the Lottery proceeds –$765 million –went to the state’s K-12 schools last year. (A detailed accounting of where the money goes is here.)

Some covers old debts

Source: State of Florida
Source: State of Florida

debt-cartoonBut that figure is deceiving. Really, more than a third of that went to public schools only a technical sense – it’s paying off bonds that the state floated years ago for long-completed school construction projects.

To the extent that this money is covering debt payments for projects that county school districts otherwise might have had to pay for, schools certainly are benefiting. But it’s not money that contributes anything to current or future school operations or construction projects.

That leaves $457 million, then, that actually flowed into the state’s public schools last year for current use.

Some comes with strings attached

stringsThat money doesn’t come as a blank check. Most of it is required to be spent for three specific purposes: hiring extra teachers to comply with Florida’s class-size limits, awarding money to schools that perform well on the state’s standardized tests, and providing money to school advisory committees for small-scale purchases and improvements on each campus.

Again, the extent to which much of this money is “enhancing” education is debatable.

The best example: Some of it covers the costs of a 2002 amendment to the state constitution that imposes class-size limits in public schools.

Some just covers the state’s tab

By FASTILY (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

The amendment requires schools to hire more teachers, and the constitutional amendment says the state government must pay the cost of doing so.

To pay for this, the Legislature last year steered a $104 million chunk of lottery proceeds toward the purpose.

If lawmakers hadn’t used lottery money, they would presumably have had to use other state dollars. So this $104 million sliver is a pretty good example of lottery money replacing, rather than enhancing, education.

The amount that Palm Beach County’s public schools received for these purposes — class size reduction, school awards and money for school advisory committees — was about $17 million last year. That’s about $92,000 per school, or enough to hire about two teachers at each campus.

(The county school district also received $3.7 million in lottery money to pay for adult education programs, but that money can’t be used for K-12 education, so we are discounting it.)

PBC schools’ share was $32 million last year

Image (2) Money%20stacks-thumb.jpg for post 1226There is one other way that the lottery money flows into the county’s public schools.

The lottery last year contributed an extra $219 million into the main part of Florida’s massive state education budget, which distributes money to schools on a per-student basis. This is the main source of funding for public schools – primarily a mix of sales tax and property tax money – and last year it cost the state government $11 billion.

The Lottery’s contribution to this, then, is a tiny portion – just 1 percent. And you can debate whether or not this is enhancing education or simply replacing money that the state would have provided otherwise.

The state does not provide a breakdown of what share of this $219 million goes to Palm Beach County. But if you figure that it accounts for 1 percent of the county’s share, that’s about $15 million.

While running the county’s schools cost $2.3 billion

Image (1) money.jpeg for post 1148So all told, the county’s public school system received about $32 million from the lottery last year to finance school operations.

But it cost $2.3 billion to operate the county’s schools. So the lottery money accounted for less than 1.5 percent of the total.

Even if the $32 million were dedicated exclusively to construction and maintenance, it would still be a tiny portion of the $430 million that the school district spends each year on so-called “capital” needs (i.e. construction, maintenance, buying new equipment).

That’s not nearly enough to put a dent into what it says is a $1.2 billion backlog in needed maintenance and repairs. The district spends nearly $30 million a year just on buying new furniture, fixtures and equipment.

So while the Florida Lottery provides some extra money for the county’s public schools, it’s a relatively small portion. It’s not even close to enough to fix the schools’ decaying infrastructure.

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