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Wednesday, 11 July 2007 00:00

Lottery could help solve state’s teacher shortage

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Since North Carolina is having such a hard time finding enough teachers, one place education leaders might look for help seems obvious — lottery proceeds. As the state pores over information from the first full year of the gambling games in North Carolina, this is one area that deserves consideration.

It’s probably wishful thinking at this point, but the truth of the matter is that the formula devised for splitting lottery proceeds has a lot of room for improvement, and not just to help get more qualified teachers into the classroom.

As human resource directors and superintendents told The Smoky Mountain News in last week’s cover story, finding enough qualified teachers is getting harder every year. We have several natural draws — including well-respected school systems and a great place to live — but the hard facts speak for themselves. This year the state’s education schools will graduate about 3,000 licensed teachers, but the state will need as many as 12,000 new hires to start the 2007-2008 school year.

Now some of those openings are from teachers moving around, but the persistence and magnitude of the problem is obvious. In many rural areas too many teachers are working outside their specialty subject area or are not fully licensed. When this happens, the obvious losers are the students.

Both South Carolina and Georgia attacked this problem head on with lottery proceeds. First, both states dedicated a majority of lottery proceeds to help pay college costs for students who maintained at least a B average in high school. In South Carolina, education majors who plan to teach in critical need areas like science and math receive extra money from the lottery scholarship fund. A total of 75 percent of the education proceeds in the state goes to scholarships (which are also higher for students who enter high technology fields, a program designed to benefit the state’s economy).

In Georgia, 40 percent of the lottery’s education proceeds goes toward scholarships. Undergraduates who plan to be teachers get extra money, and teachers who go back to earn graduate degrees in critical need areas also can get additional scholarships.

In North Carolina, however, only 10 percent of lottery’s education money goes toward scholarships, and these are broad-based needs awards that don’t take into consideration the student’s major field of study. Helping students from low-income families pay for college is a great way to spend the money, but the state would have done itself a favor by providing extra incentives for these students if they would agree to become teachers. An easy way to set this up would be to direct some lottery proceeds toward expanding the N.C. Teaching Fellows program, which offers scholarships to 500 state high school students if they promise to teach for five years.

The formula in this state for distributing lottery money is simply flawed. Not only is too little money directed toward scholarships, the formula for distributing the school construction money penalizes counties who have a lower-than-average state property tax rate. The counties that fall into that category are mostly in the western part of the state, meaning we aren’t getting a fair share.

The lottery formula was developed as a compromise in order to garner support for the bill. Now, perhaps, as the games have become entrenched, it is time for a wholesale re-write of the distribution formula. A look at what’s being done in neighboring states provides good food for thought.

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