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Lottery windfall should be used to pay off student loans for teachers

January’s record Powerball jackpot created a revenue windfall for education funding.

Let’s put that windfall into the pockets of teachers.

Let’s use it to pay off their student loans.

The North Carolina Education Lottery received $38.5 million from the run of record jackpots in January. This revenue is not included in our existing budget but does have to be spent this year.

I have joined Representatives Ed Hanes (D-Forsyth), Bobbie Richardson (D-Franklin), and Rep. Brad Salmon (D-Harnett) to introduce a bill (House Bill 1031) that would appropriate this amount to create the North Carolina Teacher HELP Fund. HELP stands for Help Educators with Loan Repayment, and the funds would be available to pay off up to $10,000 in outstanding student loans for North Carolina public school teachers.

Turning this lottery windfall into a jackpot for teachers would accomplish two important tasks.

First, it would send a very clear message to teachers that we value them and want them to stay in the profession.

Second, it would help restore the promise that lottery proceeds are not supposed to supplant general fund support for education.

The NC Teacher HELP Fund would provide immediate assistance to more than 3,800 teachers. Although not all teachers would be eligible for this benefit, it would directly help teachers at the bottom of the pay scale who are still in debt for the expense of getting their degree.

Imagine a 28-year-old teacher who has just had a baby and is wondering how to stay in the profession while making less than $40,000 a year. This immediate loan forgiveness could be the equivalent of a $200 per month raise, which might just be enough to keep that teacher in the classroom.

In fact, the teacher would have to sign a contract to remain employed as a classroom teacher for four years in exchange for accepting the funds.

The HELP Fund is a novel way to respect and retain teachers.

We can’t plan on having this windfall again. It needs to be used for a one-time purpose so it can’t be part of a standard teacher raise. The NC Teacher HELP Fund is as close as we can get.

Unfortunately, Governor McCrory is proposing to use the same windfall for an appropriation that would set a troubling precedent.

The Governor’s proposed budget allocates $39 million to textbooks and digital resources for schools. Lottery funds have never been used for standard school supplies, and beginning to use funds in that way would be a mistake.

North Carolinians who spend their money on lottery tickets know that if they don’t win the jackpot, their money goes to education. But with our schools in such horrible financial shape, constituents ask me all the time where the lottery money actually goes?

Originally, the lottery was supposed to provide additional funding for schools beyond what the state was already providing. Unfortunately, lottery funds have largely been reduced to just another one of the state’s revenue streams.

In 2015, total lottery revenues for education were about $521 million. The vast majority of that funding goes for K-3 teacher and teacher assistant salaries. Smaller amounts are used for school construction, prekindergarten classes, and college scholarships. The NC Teacher HELP Fund fits within traditional lottery funding priorities and certainly does not supplant any existing funding.

The NC Teacher HELP Fund is not the game-changer we need for education funding in North Carolina.

But it would be like hitting the lottery for some teachers.

And I think North Carolinians who were chasing the jackpot but lost might even feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.

Rep. Graig Meyer

Representative Graig Meyer (D-Orange) represents House District 50, including Orange and Caswell counties, and is currently serving his fourth term. Rep. Meyer is an educator and a social worker who consults with public schools on creating equitable learning environments.