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A misleading gamble on education

When Rebecca Paul strolls down a school hallway and into a classroom in a television commercial for the Florida Lottery, the lighting is just right and the students in the background are perfectly placed. The scene evokes a warm and fuzzy feeling about education. Never mind that the lottery is gambling; who couldn't feel good about buying a scratch-off ticket or two to give children this kind of school experience? In a sincere, confident tone, Lottery Secretary Paul speaks of the $1.3-billion the Florida Lottery has contributed to state education over the past three years. She urges viewers to realize that even though a billion is a lot, and more than was expected from the lottery, "It is only part of what our schools need. The rest is up to you."

An important detail Paul neglects to mention, however, should leave viewers cold. Lottery income, even the more than a billion dollars Floridians' first fascination with the lottery provided, accounts for only 9.5 percent of the total public education budget. Omitting that information, as well as the fact that there has been a steady drop over the past few years in state general revenue spent on education, is terribly misleading.

The lottery has not solved the state's problematic lack of money for education. In fact, the reduction in general revenue indicates that a false sense of security about lottery revenue has made it easy to raid the education budget for other things. In fiscal year 1986-1987, education accounted for 61.19-percent of general revenue spending. Last year, education's share dropped to 57.74 percent.

Encouraging the misperception that the lottery finances education can have an insidious effect at a grass-roots level as well. Parents and others who are used to contributing to special fund-raising efforts on which most schools depend heavily may hesitate because they think the money they spend on the lottery each week is enough.

The promotional spot was produced to conform with legislation passed last year requiring lottery officials to educate the public about the actual percentage of the education budget the lottery covers. Education Commissioner Betty Castor, who requested the law last year, has asked that the commercial be pulled. "To have this ad fostering the impression that somehow the lottery is doing more than it is .

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. I don't think we can permit that to go on," Castor said to education lobbyists at a meeting on the subject. She also plans to ask the Legislature to amend the law to make it more specific. If the lottery's role in education is to be conveyed accurately on a television spot, Castor herself would be the ideal spokeswoman.

The current commercial should be stopped. Of course it is Rebecca Paul's job to sell the lottery, but she and the Lottery Commission need to consider the harm of misleading the public in the process.

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