Does School Choice Reduce Crime?

Yesterday, Charles noted a key Wall Street Journal piece on a Council of Foreign Relations report. That report concluded that educational failure is dangerous for our national security and national well-being.

Another recent study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, highlighted in the Spring 2012 Education Next, looks more directly at the quality of public education and future crime rates.

We know that criminal offenders often have low levels of education: only 35 percent of inmates in U.S. correctional facilities have earned a high school diploma, compared to 82 percent of the general population. Criminal activity is concentrated among minority males; it begins in early adolescence and peaks when most youth should still be enrolled in secondary school. The schools these young men would attend are typically in high-poverty urban neighborhoods, have high rates of violence and school dropout, and struggle to retain effective teachers. Such schools may be a particularly fertile environment for the onset of criminal behavior.

That lack of a quality education relates to future criminal activity is well established, but does school choice help? Dr. David Deming of Harvard University studied students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina who could choose the best school for themselves, if they won a lottery for the available seat. He writes (emphasis added):

I find consistent evidence that attending a better school reduces crime among those age 16 and older, across various schools, and for both middle and high school students. The effect is largest for African American males and youth who are at highest risk for criminal involvement. …

In this study, I find that winning a lottery for admission to the school of choice greatly reduces criminal activity, and that the greatest reduction occurs among youth at the highest risk for committing crimes. The impacts persist beyond the initial years of school enrollment, seven years after the school-choice lottery was held. The findings suggest that schools may be an opportune setting for the prevention of future crime. Many high-risk youth drop out of school at a young age and are incarcerated for serious crimes prior to the age of high school graduation. For these youth, who are on the margins of society, public schools may present the best opportunity for intervention.

Indeed school choice has many benefits, and not just for students and parents, but for all of us.