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School & District Management Opinion

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

By Matt Warner — May 20, 2008 3 min read
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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.

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