Gambling on Education

BY Emily Colin

Carissa Winkler bounces into her classroom at Milestones Learning Center settles into one of the pint-sized wooden chairs and turns on the charm. “I can write my name ” she says. “All the letters. Do you want to see?” And she does it turning her head to the side after each one to see if the adults gathered around her approve. With her chin-length blonde hair hidden green flowered dress and white Keds with lacy ankle socks not to mention her 5 000-watt smile shes the picture of 5-year-old glee. Shes also a miracle.

When Carissas mother Liz was four-and-a-half months pregnant routine testing revealed that the baby she was carrying had a heart problem. Then living in New Jersey the Winklers endured diagnosis after diagnosis after Carissa was born: cardiac issues neurological problems and epilepsy all before age 2. Most likely due to her epileptic seizures Carissa experienced major developmental delays. She received excellent treatment in New Jersey and in North Carolina and has made great strides but Liz knew that Carissa would need a little extra support before entering kindergarten.

Enter More at Four a statewide program administered through New Hanover County Schools thats dedicated to increasing school readiness in developmentally delayed and economically disadvantaged preschoolers. With eight sites throughout the county including three public pre-K centers Head Start and four private childcare centers More at Four is able to provide free-of-charge services to those students who need them the most like Carissa Winkler.

The program is funded in part by proceeds from the North Carolina Education Lottery (NCEL). With the Lottery Act signed into law by Governor Easley in August 2005 and the first lottery ticket sold in spring 2006 North Carolina only recently joined the 42 states that offer a lottery 23 of which earmark a portion of the proceeds for education.

he four areas prioritized by the lottery are as follows: college scholarships extended as matches to those students attending North Carolina public or private colleges who qualify for Pell Grants but have not received the full amount; school construction; at-risk pre-kindergarten programs like More at Four; and class-size reduction for kindergarten through third grade. At the state level the funds are allocated as follows: 10 percent for scholarships 50 percent for pre-K programs and class size reduction; and 40 percent for school construction. This formula holds true at the local level as well when funds are passed down to individual counties.

“The governor has pushed for seven years to reduce class size and for More at Four. Reducing class size means well need to build new schools. It seemed like we were building a new school every year ” says state senator Julia Boseman on how the initiatives were selected. “Hundreds of kids in New Hanover County have gotten the Pell Grant (match). I certainly think its helping I think its important to keep that money home to help our kids.”

o how much are the citizens of New Hanover County investing/playing and whats the return? During fiscal year 2006-2007 New Hanover was one of the top ten lottery counties with consumers playing the numbers to the tune of $19 966 869. “Two of the top 100 retailers in the state were in New Hanover County ” says Alice Garland the lotterys deputy executive director of legislative and corporate communications. Wilmingtons most lucrative lottery retailer Greenfield Food came in at No. 15 in lottery ticket sales statewide.

Despite a downward economy the lotterys numbers continue to rise. In 2006-2007 total lottery sales for the state as a whole were nearly $886 million and NCEL executive director Thomas Shaheen estimates that in the 2007-2008 fiscal year which concluded on June 30 the lottery exceeded more than $1 billion in sales.

Shaheen attributes this increase in part to his successful effort to eliminate the law dictating that 35 percent of purchases must be earmarked for education; in 2007-2008 the percentage was closer to 33 (the legislature now sets a dollar amount based on what they believe the lottery will bring in as a funding goal). “In order to raise more money we needed people to buy lottery tickets ” he says. “North Carolinas prizes were significantly less than South Carolinas Virginias or Tennessees. If we werent able to raise the prize payout we wouldnt have produced dollars in sales. Look at it this way: Thirty-three percent of a bigger number is more than 35 percent of a smaller one.”

In the 2006-2007 fiscal year the most recent year for which comprehensive financial data is available New Hanover County received a little more than $6 million in lottery monies based in part on our countys tax base and in part on our schools average daily membership. The funds were administered as follows: 701 Pell Grant match scholarships were distributed totaling $785 541; $1 494 262 went toward school construction or renovation; $1 366 764 was allocated for class size reduction allowing the school system to maintain 44.2 K-3 teaching positions; and $2 363 810 went toward the More at Four program.

In fact New Hanover County Schools has been able to double its available More at Four slots using lottery funds. “Currently we serve 594 children at eight sites ” says Krista Holland Pre-K director for the school system. “Were reimbursed on a slot-per-child basis. New Hanover County is not reimbursed as much as other counties though we have pockets of poverty because of our countys total revenue.”

Because of the way that lottery funds are distributed it is impossible for Holland to tell what percentage of funds received from the state are lottery dollars. “The educational lottery is just included with other funds other state-allocated dollars ” she says.

Holland is not alone in her inability to detect exactly how lottery dollars are impacting her program. Though the process by which the funds are disbursed is streamlined it can be confusing for the uninitiated. Basically the monies originate with the NCEL and are transferred to the State Lottery Fund where they come under the control of the Office of State Budget and Management. At this point two funding streams emerge. One intended for scholarships goes to the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA) which handles the disbursement of scholarship funds.

NCEL college scholarships are easy to track especially because they involve a transaction between a single institution (SEAA) and an individual (the college student). They appear on tuition statements as “N.C. Education Lottery Scholar ” with a corresponding dollar amount.

The other lottery monies intended for class-size reduction More at Four and school construction are given to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to manage. Of these three funding streams the simplest to track is whats allotted for construction. Monies for construction projects in each county are placed in individual bank accounts and must be applied for prior to use. The county commission rather than the school board makes the application.

For New Hanover County Schools “lottery revenue made up 22 percent of the total capital outlay budget for 2006-2007 and less than 1 percent of the total budget ” according to director of finance Ashley Sutton. Capital projects undertaken with lottery monies included the band room renovation at Hoggard High School structural repairs at Lakeside High School stage repairs at New Hanover High School and other renovations at Roland Grise Middle School Howe Pre-K and Laney High School. Monies were also used to pay debt service for the 2005 bond referendum. Lottery funds designated for construction in 2007-2008 were projected at $1 536 861; actual distribution through the third quarter was $1 109 975 (the school system like most state agencies runs on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year). These funds will be used for the Snipes Elementary School renovation.

New Hanover County Superintendent of Schools Alfred Lerch says that lottery funds have had a significant impact on school construction. “If that funding source dried up capital would be reduced by 22 percent. Were able to implement one-fifth more projects.”

As important as capital projects are Dr. Lerch believes that the most important use to which lottery funds have been put involves More at Four. “I think that the Pre-K programs are very significant ” he says. “If youre talking about impact in an immediate way having 4-year-olds in school is definitely impacting New Hanover County.”

Tracking funds for More at Four and classroom-size reduction proves challenging especially because the More at Four program involves a series of reimbursements. New Hanover County finance officer Mary Hazel Small says “All non-construction funds are allocated from DPI along with other revenue. We are unable to see a difference between lottery and non-lottery funding.” Since both More at Four and the classroom size reduction program existed in New Hanover County prior to the implementation of the lottery in fact all of the teaching positions paid for by the lottery are existing teachers rather than new employees it is next to impossible for principals or teachers to know which specific positions (or in the case of More at Four educational slots) are being paid for by lottery monies.

hough theres no denying that lottery funds have had an impact on New Hanover County schools theres still a long way to go. As dictated by the state the ideal K-3 teacher/student ratio is 1:18 with a class maximum of 24 students; in our school district the class size average is 21 a number that varies from one school to the next.

At Wrightsville Beach Elementary a relatively high-wealth school principal Pansy Rumley says “We are not able to meet the 1:18 ratio. That is the ideal and up until last year we were pretty close to 1:18 numbers. But last year our numbers were high 1:24 in kindergarten for both classes 1:24 in both second-grade classes 1:20 in first grade 21 or 22 in third grade.” Rumley dealt with the situation by having a floating teacher who circulated between the two kindergarten classes working with small groups of children as necessary. “Unfortunately students dont enroll in batches of 18 ” she says.

 How we stack up

$19 966 869 Amount of money that New Hanover County residents spent on lottery tickets in the 2006-2007 fiscal year

118 Number of retail outlets selling lottery tickets in New Hanover County

7 Our retail sales ranking out of all North Carolina counties

$6 010 377 Total amount of lottery funds received by New Hanover County in 2006-2007

$1 494 262 Lottery-funded construction dollars

22 Percentage this comprises of total construction budget

$2 363 810 Lottery-funded More at Four dollars

$1 366 764 Lottery-funded classroom-size reduction dollars

44.2 Number of New Hanover County teacher positions funded with lottery dollars

701 Number of college scholarships for New Hanover County residents funded by the Lottery

$785 541 Amount of monies those scholarships totaled

8 Number of More at Four sites in New Hanover County

585 Approximate number of students served through More at Four program

*All figures represent the 2006-2007 fiscal year ending June 30 2007 unless otherwise specified.

Tyese Scott-Oates is principal of Sunset Park Elementary a school with a very different demographic than Wrightsville Beach Elementary but facing some similar issues. “We are a Title I school with a very heavy minority population. Weve traditionally used Title I funds to get our class size down ” she says referring to a federal program that provides financial assistance to high-poverty schools. “Typically across the board we have a 1:20 1:23 ratio. To get a little extra help is fabulous. Im not so sure I can say its from the lottery though.”

One thing Scott-Oates does know for sure: many of her students have already attended school readiness programs and it makes a difference. “The advantage to kids who have been in school settings is that they know how school works ” she says. “They may not come in knowing everything wed like them to but they know quite a bit.”

For Milestones owner Layne Smith this is what More at Four is all about. “Its a great program to prepare kids for kindergarten ” says Smith whose own daughter just completed kindergarten at Wrightsville Beach Elementary School. “Theres a big need for it. We had schoolteachers saying that kids were coming in unprepared that they need help.” In the program Smith says “students learn a lot of self-help skills. They learn social and emotional skills not just academics.”

With tears in her eyes Liz Winkler concurs. “The More at Four program for us was so great. Carissa would come home and blow my mind telling me her ABCs and the sounds of the letters. At the end of the year all the kids memorized these songs and poems I couldnt believe it.” She leans toward her daughter who is intent on crafting the perfect letter A its lines spindly yet sure. “Can you sing the song you learned last year?” she asks.

Staring at the paper where shes carefully written her name Carissa sings in a quiet but clear voice: “When I was a little kid not so long ago/I had to learn a lot of things I didnt even know/How to dress myself tie my shoes how to jump a rope/How to smile for a picture without looking like a dope.”

One thing is certain: With her ebullient personality radiant smile and newfound skills provided in part by NCEL funds looking like a dopes not something Carissa Winklers going to have to worry about any time soon.