Leader Blues

Friday, December 19, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Scholarships and the lottery

Gov. Mike Beebe and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, between whom no love is lost, are already scrapping over what to do with the tens of millions of dollars annually that will be collected by the state lottery when tickets start being sold in 2010. Theirs is a senseless argument that legislators should ignore when they craft the implementing lottery law this winter.

Halter may claim the moral privilege because he wrote and pushed the lottery amendment to adoption while Beebe opposed it, but that shouldn’t give Halter special prerogative in designing the law. The practical situation is that lawmakers love the governor and most of them do not care for the lieutenant governor, even in the Senate where Halter presides, but Beebe’s ideas should be put to the test just as rigorously as Halter’s.

The lottery’s net proceeds must be used for college scholarships, and the amendment requires the state to continue its current financial efforts, which amounts to about $115 million annually at the public colleges and universities. Halter says the lottery will produce $100 million to $120 million annually, but the state Department of Finance and Administration says it will produce no more than $50 million. For that, we must wait and see.

Beebe’s and Halter’s essential disagreement is whether the lottery proceeds should be deposited in the current scholarship system or, as Halter wants, an entirely separate program. The biggest of some 21 different scholarship programs run by the state is the Academic Challenge Scholarship, which is available to every youngster whose family is not affluent enough to pay the tuition, who has completed the college-preparatory core curriculum, who earns at least a 2.75 grade point in high school and who scores at least 19 on the ACT. (That, by the way, is a very low score.)

Beebe is right that the state should not run competing scholarship programs but he is wrong in insisting that the current programs are well run. They aren’t. Now, millions of dollars a year in scholarship funds are going begging, which has built up a surplus of $52 million. Halter says it is not because there are not needy youngsters who want to go to college but because the state’s criteria are so baffling and cumbersome that people don’t apply for the scholarships. He wants one or two simple criteria that every youngster, parent and high school counselor understands. He suggests a simple 2.5 grade point but no ACT score requirement and an easy threshold of family need.

We think that makes sense, although we might quarrel with a grade-point requirement rather than an ACT score that suggests that the youngster can do college work. Grade-point averages in Arkansas high schools are notoriously imprecise measures of either achievement or capacity to do scholarly work.

So Beebe’s and Halter’s ideas ought to be meshed. There should be one need-based scholarship program available to every youngster in Arkansas who meets one simple criterion, whether it be grade-point average or college-entrance test score.

There could be additional standards for older adults who want to return to college on a scholarship.

Beyond that, Halter spelled out some standards that he would like to see in the implementing law to insure that the lottery is operated with maximum transparency and accountability. The state enters a perilous domain when it embraces any form of gambling as a government enterprise. It is fraught with opportunities for fraud, favoritism and simple dishonesty with the participating public. The public should know every financial detail of the operation, including the odds that every ticket buyer faces.

If the government is going to run a numbers racket, it must be done with as much probity as humanly possible, and the good ends of the operation, a college education for all who want it, must be accomplished as simply as possible. And the egos of competing politicians need not be obliged to do it right.