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Try, try, try again: Rep. Ford won't give up on sending lottery funds back where they came from
We’ve all heard the saying: If at first you don’t succeed try, try again. Rep. LaShawn K. Ford has tried again and again and again and again and again.
Ford has been pushing to divert more lottery funds to cash-strapped Chicago schools. He introduced his first bill in 2008, the second came in 2009, followed by bills in 2010, and three in 2011.
“Education inequities take a toll on the entire state and we can bring equity in funding to the CPS school district if we raise the level of revenue coming from the lottery,” said Ford, who is a former Chicago Public School teacher.
Low-income communities in Chicago buy more lottery tickets than wealthier ones. But the poorer areas get proportionately less money from the Common School Fund, which doles out lottery proceeds to school districts across the state.
At the same time, public schools in low-income neighborhoods are desperately in need of resources. Areas that spend tens of millions of dollars on lottery tickets also have schools with crumbling buildings and overcrowded classrooms.
Ford’s billspropose diverting funds from the Common School Fund to low-income school districts based on how much their communities spend on lottery sales. Several of his bills proposed starting a new fund with money from the lottery, and others aimed to redirect earnings from the Common School Fund.
But none of the bills have made it past three debates on the House floor. In each case, votes were heavily divided between legislators from districts with large low-income populations and those without them.
Out of all the school lottery legislation Ford proposed, the one that had the longest run was HB618, which was introduced in February 2009. It would have required the state's lottery proceeds to be redirected to a "general fund," and from there to school districts based on their percentage of lottery sales. It lost after a lengthy debate during the third reading.
In the final vote, 29 out of 37 legislators who supported the bill were from Cook County. The rest included legislators from counties that were bordering Chicago or had more than 10 percent of their county's population living below the poverty line.
Ford said he noticed the divide, and chalked it up to a weaker presence from legislators concerned with urban issues. "We didn't have the 60 legislators from Chicago that we would need to pass the measure."
Rep. David Reis is a downstate legislator that argued fervently against HB618. He argued that any plans to take away funding that would have otherwise gone to districts around the state was a plan to "help certain school districts and hurt other school districts."
Reis also worried the cash-strapped state wouldn't be able to bridge the funding shortfall if schools couldn't rely on lottery funds.
"I rise in opposition to this bill. We've had a system in place that works. Obviously we're trying to take a pie that ... represents a smaller and smaller segment of how we fund education from the state level each year," Reis said at the time. "And now, people are saying, well, i want a bigger piece of the pie. I don't care about somebody else that may not get a piece at all."
Reis did not respond to our numerous phone calls to his office or attempts to set up an interview through his spokesman.
Ford argues in response that "lottery funding was never meant to be part of core funding for schools."
"The lottery should be looked at as a supplement to the school fund and not as a source of revenue. That job belongs to the state," he said.
Were one of his bills to be adopted, Ford said that the state would be forced to take up school funding.
Lottery funds have been going into the Common School Fund since 1985. Before that, they went into the Department of Revenue’s general revenue fund.
But education advocates see bringing back funding that comes from money originally spent in their communities as a way to tackle a long-term resource disadvantage.
Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said Ford’s bills offered a chance to address structural inequalities in school funding.
"Whatever resources can be obtained from lottery revenue should go towards paying the education debt that is owed to communities that have been historically under-served," said Brown. "Legislators have to represent the interests of their constituents, but we all have to be held to a higher standard if we want one day to reverse the trend that we imprison more people than any other country."
Ford hasn't given up hope of addressing these issues through the lottery fund. His fourth bill would create a special lottery scratch-off game called "After-School Rescue." All the funds would be used to make grants to "at-risk schools for the promotion of extracurricular and after-school programs."
"I think we have a better shot of getting this because it won't take anything away from any other school district and will generate its own revenue," said Ford.
The bill was referred to the rules committee in March.
"There are some elected officials who believe if we create another lottery it will still rob the school funds because people only have so much money to spend,” Ford said. “But the bills all have challenges. We are all in this together - what is good for Chicago is good for Illinois."
Photo credit: Lisa Brewster