Raleigh, N.C. — Several House Democrats say the state lottery windfall from the Powerball frenzy earlier this year should be used to help keep teachers in North Carolina classrooms.
The record-high Powerball jackpot in January boosted ticket sales $39 million over projections. By statute, that money has to be spent this year, and it cannot be used for recurring expenses such as salaries.
Gov. Pat McCrory's budget proposal puts the money into textbooks and classroom supplies. But sponsors of House Bill 1031 say it could be better used to help slow teacher turnover, especially among younger teachers.
Under the proposal, $38.5 million of the lottery surplus would go into an "NC Teacher HELP Fund." Teachers could apply for up to $10,000 from the fund to pay off student debt. In return, recipients would agree to stay in a North Carolina classroom for four more years.
Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, estimates the money could provide debt relief to 3,800 teachers.
"This type of loan forgiveness is targeted directly at the young teachers who are most likely to leave our profession because of North Carolina's lagging pay," Meyer said Wednesday. "It would be an immediate shot in the arm to help keep someone who's trying to make a tough economic decision about whether or not to stay in North Carolina, how to stay in the teaching profession while raising a family.
"This could be something that keeps teachers in the schools this year," he added.
"While we're working on raises, and we've tried to do that over the last few years, frankly the raises are simply not coming fast enough," said Rep Ed Hanes, D-Forsyth. "Our teachers and their families need relief, and they need it right now."
Rep. Bobbie Richardson, D-Franklin, said she was told by the UNC system that the average student loan debt for a four-year teaching degree is $22,997, and that about 1,341 students graduate with teaching degrees every year.
"So, we're not talking about a huge amount of money, but we are talking about lifting our teachers up and putting our state on the cutting edge," Richardson said.
Asked why state lawmakers shouldn't use the money to backfill unmet needs for educational materials and classroom supplies, Meyer said it's because state lottery funds should not be used to replace money the state is already required to spend on education.
"When the lottery was introduced, North Carolinians were promised that what they spent on the lottery would supplement education funding, that it wouldn't replace existing funding," he said. "At that time, we were paying for textbooks and digital supplies with general funding."
Asked whether Republican lawmakers were backing the proposal, Meyer said House GOP budget writers "have some things that they're working on already, and this is an idea I think they're only beginning to explore."