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Gambling Revenue and a Tenuous Future for Education Funding

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    Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blacknell/

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As a Philadelphian who is active in a number of different communities, I never really thought that my volunteer efforts as a parent and education activist would have reason to intersect with my work at Asian Americans United fighting a casino in the heart of Philadelphia and next to Chinatown. But recent news about Pennsylvania's efforts to link gambling and education funding now has me wondering about how worlds can collide. Consider these recent connections around gambling and schools:

  • Gov. Rendell's rumored appointment to the School Reform Commission is Rosemarie Greco who serves on the board of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, landlord of the Gallery shopping mall, which is now in negotiations to lease to Foxwoods Casino; and

As the economic forecasts for the nation become more dire, and as states across the country continue to slash their education budgets (as many as 34 so far according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities), it's easy to claim gambling as easy revenue. Check out these comments by Nevada resident Ken McKenna:

"I think if the state of Nevada would lower the drinking age to 18, lower the gambling age to 18, we would have instant stimulus on our economy," McKenna says.

McKenna, by the way, serves on the state board of education, and he proposed this so that the state doesn't have to cut funding to schools. We're not too far off the mark here. Just listen to these state officials on the thought of video poker revenue:

  • "manna from heaven," says Berks County Rep. Tom Caltagirone, who sponsored a failed video poker bill last year forgetting about those kids wanting to go to college; and
  • an opportunity to "eliminate the gap between what families can afford to pay and what they are forced to pay," declares Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak, in one of the more overreaching statements of the year.

It seems those two haven't visited any of the number of casinos going bankrupt in Atlantic City, or perhaps they missed the reflection by Louisiana State Sen. A.G. Crowe, who denounced gambling and video poker as "a big sell job" in a December Associated Press story. Or maybe they missed the Inquirer story which appeared in the paper right below the one touting the benefits of gambling revenue for improving education:

The state budget crisis may mean the end of a decades-old program that provided some of the state's most promising high school students intensive summer study in the arts and sciences, all free of charge. Officials with the Rendell administration say next year's proposed state budget, to be presented in Harrisburg today, does not include funding for the Pennsylvania Governor's Schools of Excellence.

The move to use gambling as revenue for core budget items like education and college funding is troubling to say the least. An interesting analysis from the New America Foundation shows that Pennsylvania still ranks among the 10 worst states when it comes to equity in school funding. And although Gov. Rendell himself has made efforts to narrow that gap, the consequences of the funding gap remain devastating. And as we also know (or should know), Pennsylvania is a bit of a dim bulb when it comes to pushing gambling - from a state gambling board that has twice granted licenses to felons (allegedly without the board's knowledge) to midnight legislation sponsored by a now-indicted state legislator. Recent editorials have described Pennsylvania's gambling fiasco as "the American casino industry's Waterloo" (Wall Street Journal op-ed), a "haphazard rush to ram gaming down the throats of Philadelphia's residents" (Philadelphia Inquirer); and a "debacle" (Philadelphia Daily News). There is no doubt that we face some of the most challenging times ahead of us, both as a Commonwealth and as a society. But after the encouraging efforts of the state legislature last year to institute a genuine funding formula, the news that the state may now be seeking gambling revenue to patchwork their way to fund our kids' futures is beyond disappointing. The combination of Pennsylvania's poor governance of gambling along with its historic reluctance to adequately fund schools can only magnify our problems - not alleviate them.

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