Alabama’s Need to Gamble on Education

By: Ted D. Davis; contact:

When Mississippi sold its first ever lottery tickets at 5 a.m. on Monday, November 25, 2019, Alabama became one of the five remaining states (including Hawaii, Nevada, Alaska, and Utah) which has yet to craft and pass a state lottery bill. Lawmakers say the proceeds will be used to improve badly damaged state roadways and education in one of the poorest states in the nation. As many as 1200 traditional lottery retailers (gas stations, grocers, and casino’s) and nontraditional ones such as barber shops leapt at a chance to sell the winning ticket by engaging a thirty day screening process. Said Mississippi Lottery Corporation President Tom Shaheen of their involvement, “Today would not have not been possible without our retailers”, adding that, “Some are so excited they are hosting our promotions and giveaways”. Scratch-off tickets were initially available, and Power ball tickets went on sale in January of this year.

The move was not without opposition, however. Located in the Bible belt (a region of the country where Evangelical Protestantism plays a dominant role in society and politics and where people are largely conservative and have high rates of church attendance), the bill was opposed by politically powerful Pentecostal and Baptist groups. In fact, during a four day special session called by state Governor Phil Bryant the bill was rejected on the third day when initial votes were cast, passing on the fourth day after Bryant urged lawmakers to appropriate millions of dollars to repair the more than 400 state roadways and bridges that are in woeful disrepair. Citizens’ of the state agreed. Said Democratic representative Greg Holloway of Hazelhurst, “My people have contacted me……They want the lottery and I want them to have what they want”.

As it turns out, even opponents of the lottery concede its value to the state. Democratic representative Jeramey Anderson, who voted for the bill on the third day of the session and against it on the final day, felt that voting against it would have given the state better negotiating power but admitted that it would improve the quality of education in a state that ranks 46th out of 50. While early childhood education is good there, ranking 3rd nationally in kindergarten enrollment and access to full-day kindergarten programs and getting a “B” for its early childhood programs compared to the national average of “D”, results are bleak overall.  2015’s Education Week’s Quality Counts report found that the state scored an “F” for academic achievement and a “D” for chance of success for students. Likewise, the state poverty rate of 24% implies that financial forces often act against a student’s ability to get a good education. Armed with the knowledge that education only goes so far, lawmakers understood the need to create economic initiatives such as the lottery in order to give residents more opportunities once they’re done with school.

In Alabama, where similar forces work against formation of the lottery, yet quality of education ranks dead last in 50th place nationally, the need for a lottery looms larger than ever. Factors such as performance, safety, funding, class size, and instructor credentials comprise the best schools systems. Based on them, in 2018 personal finance website WalletHub set out to determine what comprises the best ones best. It found that Massachusetts ranked number one overall in quality and safety, followed closely by New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Virginia. Iowa, New Jersey, West Virginia, Nebraska, and Texas have the lowest dropout rates, and Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri logged the highest median SAT scores. The safest schools are in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Vermont, California, and Pennsylvania.

The safest bet for a successful school however, is some combination of the aforementioned teacher buoyancy and budget. Laura Hsu, assistant professor at Merrimack College, says that, “More than any other factor, teacher quality seems to be the strongest predictor of student achievement”. She assesses that finding and keeping strong teachers is the priority for every school, and she admits that it is relative to budget, which Barbara Jeanne Erwin, clinical associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington verifies. She notes that teachers are required to do more with less funding, but she cautions that determining the best or worst public schools is dicey because all states have different funding mechanisms and state required tests. She urges that parents understand this dynamic in order to determine the best course of action in choosing a school for their child.

Leadership in the state of Alabama points to another culprit in its failing school system: Its dysfunctional school board. Republican Pro-Tem Del Marsh has proposed SB 397, which he presented to the State Senate’s Committee on Education Policy in June 2018. It would overhaul Alabama’s K-12 governance. Under his amendment board members will be, “appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate”. If passed by the Legislature, SB 397 will need to be approved by the citizens of the state of Alabama, which will take place on the March 2020 election date. Governor Kay Ivey has emerged as a staunch supporter of the proposal, vowing that, “We must refuse to be complacent with our poor educational rankings”.

In that spirit, a 2019 report entitled “Alabama’s school finance formula outdated, unfair, experts say” reveals that the states use of the Foundation Program, enacted in 1995 to govern school funding, “exacerbates inequities by not providing funding based on student needs”. Instead, Alabama is one of only seven states that provide school funding based solely on the number of students in a school according to national non-profit EdBuild, whose focus is bringing practicality and fairness to way schools are funded. As you can see in the following map, Alabama’s student funding is largely resource-based, rather than student-based.


When you understand that research shows that more money is required to teach poor students, students who need to learn English, and Special needs students to get them to the same level you understand what EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia means when she says that, “Alabama’s funding formula isn’t even keeping with what we see in research”.

That’s telling, but what is more telling is that in 2019 Mississippi lawmakers hired EdBuild to rebuild its school finance system, which while similar to Alabama’s allocates more money to school districts based on their number of poor students, which Alabama doesn’t. It’s worth noting that in a 2019 Business Insider ranking of the nation’s poorest states, Alabama ranked 7th and Mississippi 1st. Thus, the poorest state in America spends more on education than the 7th poorest. Only in Alabama’s richest communities is spending per student adequate. Why is that the case? Districts which can raise additional money for schools do. In the wealthy Mountain Brook community an additional 6500.00 was spent per pupil from local money in 2015, bringing spending per student to nearly $12,200.00, which affords students advantages such as smaller classrooms and better program offerings. In addition, wealthier school districts can afford to pay teacher’s more than state salary schedules, enabling them to pluck high achieving teachers from poorer districts.

APA Consulting, hired by the Alabama State Department of Education in 2013 to help build equitable school funding, reached the same conclusion about Alabama school funding as EdBuild. When it studied adequacy (is it enough?) and equity (is it fair?) it concluded that Alabama’s funding system is nether, and that it needs to spend twenty to thirty-five percent more to reach adequate levels. At that time, spending per student amounted to $7,723, but it needed to be between $9,388 and $10,590 per pupil, “to achieve the student outcomes educators and communities expect and that successful school districts achieve”.  Alabama’s response to the findings IT paid for? The report was never formally presented to lawmakers, a damning testament to its national public education ranking.

So, do lotteries actually improve school systems? Evidence in Virginia, North Carolina, and California, where as much as one hundred million dollars from lottery winnings has been pumped directly into school systems, reflect that they do. The problem lies in state attitudes toward lottery winnings. It seems that the more money lotteries bring to school systems, the more states cut funding to education budgets, a sort of dishonest proposal. In fact, a Washington Post op-ed reports that across the nation, “Instead of using the money as additional funding, legislatures have used the money to pay for the education budget and spent the money that would have been used had there been no lottery cash on other things”. It’s like robbing from Paul to pay Paul. Still, in Alabama, where education ranks dead last, any additional money, properly used, can make all the difference in a country where education is used as the calling card for how well its citizens are afforded to live. Clearly Alabama should gamble on education.


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