Sparks is calling for a state lottery to fund post-secondary scholarships for Alabama high school and GED graduates. According to his plan, if a student graduates from an Alabama high school with at least a C average, he will get a scholarship. If he gets a GED, goes to college and makes at least a C average the first semester, he gets a scholarship. If he wants to go to a vocational school, there will be money for that, as well.
That money will come from a lottery that’s similar to those in Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. Lotteries in those states have helped thousands of students go to college. In today’s world — where education is the key to a better life — that is an investment worth making.
However, a few things need to be acknowledged and addressed.
First, a 1999 constitutional amendment that would have created a state lottery lost when opponents of former Gov. Don Siegelman’s idea claimed the money would be divided up by politicians and little would get to the students. Remember the “smoke-filled room” commercials?
To combat this, any proposed lottery amendment must make it clear that the money will go to the education of Alabama children and not to roads and other projects. Sparks is campaigning on that promise.
Likewise, Alabama should learn from the mistakes made in Tennessee, where a constitutional loophole allowed “excess” revenue to go to something other than scholarships — so it did. Florida had a similar situation early on because the pot of gold was too tempting for legislators to resist. Georgia has not had this problem. Sparks and his advisers should study why.
They also should study Georgia to see what happens when states promise more than they can deliver. Even though Georgia had higher standards than what Sparks is proposing — requiring a B average in high school — that state is having difficulty covering the cost of rising tuition.
Over there, tuition is going up for the same reason it is rising everywhere else — states are cutting back on what they spend on higher education. The balance must be made up somewhere.
But Georgia also is the victim of unintended consequences.
With the lottery-funded scholarships, more Georgia students went to college and vocational schools. This meant schools needed more teachers, more classrooms, more labs and more of just about everything. But the state Legislature balked at spending more money. So colleges and universities had to raise tuition, which in turn drove up the cost of the lottery-funded scholarships. Georgia now is considering raising the bar even more.
Tennessee also is dealing with a similar dilemma by offering partial scholarships — something Alabama might consider.
Meanwhile, critics continue to complain that lottery-funded scholarships in fact subsidize middle-class students who make better grades and who do not need the financial support as much as low-income students.
If Sparks is serious about his lottery proposal, he needs to look at what has happened in other states and adjust his plans accordingly.