Millions of people each year stop off near the end of a grocery store trip and take a look at the bright machine offering scratch-off Lottery tickets. Then they glance at the handful of change from the cashier who rang up their groceries. Another glance at the vending machine is all it takes to convince them: It's a lucky day.
A few wrinkled dollar bills are exchanged for a small Scratcher ticket. The player digs out his lucky penny from his back pocket and hopes for a win.
That dreamer isn't alone. Business is booming for the California Lottery.
Ticket sales are up. The California Lottery saw a major jump in the 2010-11 fiscal year, seeing sales rise more than 13 percent to $3.4 billion.
It's easy to look at growing sales and say it's the desperation of a poor economy. But Lottery officials say the increase is due to new and interesting games and watching the prize tick upward to hundreds of millions of dollars.
And even if they lose, players can take comfort knowing the money went to a good cause.
Last year, $1.3 billion of Lottery sales went to California schools.
But does it really help public schools?
"That's a question that is frequently asked. A lot of people think it provides more revenues than it does," said Margaret Weston, an expert in K-12 school finance for the Public Policy Institute of California.
The state Lottery and its myriad games got started in 1985 as a way to generate funds for public education without adding another tax. It's one of the only state funds that are doled out equally to everyone. At least 50 percent of tickets sales go back to the public as prizes. Public schools get about 34 percent of revenue from sales.
Each school gets $135 per student, though they pass it out in different ways. The peak of Lottery funding for kindergarten through 12th grade hit during the 2005-06 school year. The average each year hovers between $40 to $45 billion, less than two percent of the state's public school funding.
Funds from Lottery revenue are divided into two parts, though all of it ends up in the general fund. Most of the money can be used for any purpose, including teacher salaries. The rest is restricted and can only be used to purchase instructional classroom materials. The money cannot be used to buy property, build schools or fund research.
This year, about $3.6 million came into the general fund for Lodi Unified, with just under $500,000 restricted. Out of the general portion, $10 per student is set aside for each school site. The total amount is based on average daily attendance.
In the budget, the money appears under "Other State Revenue." It totals about 2 percent of the general fund.
The district doesn't keep track of how those specific dollars are used once they enter the general fund.
Tim Hern, chief business officer, says the income has stayed pretty consistent over the years, though it has never been quite the revenue stream that was promised.
"In today's economy, it makes a difference so we rely on it," said Hern.
It is real money, but most schools don't know exactly where it goes. Often the money goes into a general fund for library books, computers or other classroom materials.
Students at Millswood Middle School use their daily planners to keep track of homework and assignments. Funds from the California Lottery provided the $4,000 to dole them out at the beginning of the school year.
"We receive a whopping $8,000 from Lottery funds. Half of that is spent on the school planners the students get at the beginning of the school year. The other approximately $4,000 was spent on a teacher computer and projector," wrote Sheree Flemmer, principal.
The reach of Lottery funds doesn't go much farther in Galt.
Galt Joint Union High School District is budgeted to receive over $250,000 in unrestricted funds and another $39,000 in restricted funds. The income totals about 1.6 percent of the budget, according to Audrey Kilpatrick, chief business official for the district.
The high school district uses their funds to support operating budgets for school sites, technology and maintenance departments and to pay substitute teachers. Restricted funds go to adopt and update textbooks.
The story is echoed at the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District.
Debbie Schmidt, director of business services, said that at $425,000 a year, Lottery money accounts for 1.5 percent of the budget. School sites traditionally receive 35 percent to use at their discretion, with $300 set aside for each teacher's classroom needs. The rest goes to instructional supplies and technology needs in the district.
But for the current school year, the only money school sites had control over was the $300 for each teacher. The remainder went to help bridge the budget gap.
Lottery officials say they are simply following the law.
"This was never meant to be the savior for all schools, but $1 billion plus a year does help schools in real ways," said Alex Traverso, a Lottery spokesman.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.