School & District Management Opinion

Zero Due at Signing: How to Improve Education on the Cheap

By Matt Warner — May 20, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The marketing slogan “zero due at signing” is often used to entice cash-poor buyers who are eager to purchase a big-ticket item, like a new car, without many upfront costs. Of course, the consumer will eventually pay in one way or another. With state budget-shortfall estimates totaling nearly $39 billion this year, many state lawmakers can probably sympathize with cash-poor buyers. In a climate of belt-tightening, shiny new state-sponsored programs may never leave the showroom.

This will likely leave traditional advocates of education reform feeling frustrated. Over the past two decades, improving education usually meant big dollar signs. Rolls-Royce reforms like class-size reduction and prekindergarten initiatives have cruised through legislatures with the promise of improving student outcomes. But given current budget constraints, would-be champions of such popular reforms will have to park their plans or find some way to defer the costs.

There is an upside to a slowdown in these pricey programs. States will at least be able to avoid the buyers’ remorse they must feel after spending billions in the past two decades on ineffective education initiatives. The American Legislative Exchange Council’s 14th annual “Report Card on American Education” high-beams these state efforts to buy their way out of K-12 underperformance. The report shows how state spending on education has increased 54 percent in constant dollars since the mid-1980s. The result of this investment is an overall class-size reduction of 15 percent, but little change in achievement outcomes. A whopping 71 percent of public school 8th graders are still performing below proficiency in reading, and 69 percent are performing below proficiency in math, according to the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Reforms like school choice improve educational outcomes without breaking the bank.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to reform education. Buy a Honda, or at least the education reform equivalent of a Honda—school choice. Reforms like school choice improve educational outcomes without breaking the bank. Choice programs are designed to redirect existing expenditures to schools of parents’ choosing, public or private, so they cost little or nothing to operate and save millions of dollars in the long run. One reason for the savings is that many programs only allow parents to redirect a portion of what state and local governments are currently spending on the student. Others set the maximum at current expenditures or the cost of private school tuition, whichever is less. Every time the tuition is less, that’s a cost savings to state and local governments. Since the early 1990s, school choice programs have saved close to half a billion dollars for the state and local governments that administer them.

Florida’s school choice program for special-needs students, for example, has saved government $139 million since 1999, when it began. Moreover, parents involved with the program report a 93 percent rate of satisfaction with their new schools, compared with 33 percent satisfaction for public schools. But parent satisfaction isn’t the only encouraging result of school choice programs. Research suggests that kids get better test scores, attend more-integrated schools, and report less bullying. Such results are driving more states toward adopting new programs. Georgia’s legislature, after passing a special-needs program in 2007, has returned this year to adopt a program that encourages corporations to support kids in need of better school choices. A review of the law reveals a projected government savings of $6,600 per participating student. It’s a win-win for Georgia’s kids and taxpayers. Without the luxury of budget surpluses this year, states ought to take school choice for a test drive.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion 4 Things School Leaders Should Do Before Setting Priorities
Sweeping language doesn't offer a road map for the school community. Here's why.
Peter DeWitt & Michael Nelson
4 min read
Screenshot 2024 06 12 at 7.16.56 AM
School & District Management As Districts Weigh 4-Day Weeks, Research Overlooks Their Most Pressing Questions
A new, searchable dashboard will help district leaders explore research on four-day school weeks.
4 min read
Illustration of people around a very large flip calendar with Mon-Thursday highlighted in red squares. The concept of task planning. People are engaged in planning a calendar schedule.
School & District Management Opinion 3 Skills to Help Leaders Navigate in Uncertain Times
Today’s charged political landscape threatens school districts’ efforts to create a safe environment where all students can learn.
Jennifer Perry Cheatham
5 min read
A leader at a podium coaches a diverse team of rowers with large pencil oars on a boat. Political leadership. Polarization.
Raul Arias for Education Week
School & District Management The Behind-the-Scenes Work of Implementing the ‘Science of Reading’
Principals are at the forefront of rolling out reading reforms. Their starring role, though, is often mistaken for a supporting one.
5 min read
Image of a spotlight on a child reading a book.
Taylor Callery for Education Week