More Private School Choice Means More Student Safety

This article appeared on DC Examiner on June 27, 2018.
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The Federal Commission on School Safety, created shortly after the tragic Parkland, Fla., school shootingmet on Tuesday in Lexington, Ky., to discuss how to make schools safer. Many people, including President Trump, have called for heightened security measures such as arming teachers, mandating clear backpacks, and stationing more officers in public schools. But none of these approaches address the root of the school safety problem.

Just about all proposed approaches are attempts to centrally plan school safety from the top-down. Of course, the addition of more police officers or security guards to schools is meant to diminish the likelihood that dangerous people are successful in harming students. However, this type of environment does not improve the mental stability of children within schools. Indeed, some critics argue that a prison-like setting could do more harm than good by stressing students out. And having more armed adults on site does little to nothing to reduce the likelihood that students engage in activities such as bullying or fighting.

But if more constraints do not solve school safety problems, does that mean fewer security measures will result in safer schools?

Not at all. As the Manhattan Institute's Max Eden pointed out, the lax discipline initiatives in New York City public schools probably unintentionally harmed school safety because of more disruptive behavior. Since the two discipline reforms, aimed to reduce students suspensions, were issued in New York City in 2012, teachers reported more disorder, violence, drugs, and gang activity in their public schools.

Central planners unfortunately have a knowledge problem. No one knows the socially optimal level of school suspensions or expulsions and no one knows of any perfect top-down measures of school safety. And even if bureaucrats could somehow calculate an optimal level of discipline or security for one school, it would not necessarily apply to any other school. Because all students are unique, the only way to solve this knowledge problem is to allow all families to choose the discipline and security policies that work best for their own children.

I've recently made the argument that, in theory, school vouchers are tickets to safer schools. But what does the scientific evidence indicate?

The data show that the school choice approach works. As shown in the table below, I only know of four rigorous studies linking private school choice to student safety. All four of these studies find statistically significant positive effects on school safety. I am unaware of any causal studies that show that school choice decreases safety levels.

Table: The Effects of Private School Choice on School Safety

Citation
Location
Outcome
Result
Dynarski et al. (2018)
D.C.
Parents and students are more likely to report that students are in "very safe" schools

+

Wolf et al. (2013)
D.C.
Parents report higher levels of school safety

+

Howell & Peterson (2006)
D.C., New York, and Dayton, Ohio
Parents report lower levels of school safety problems

+

Witte et al. (2008)
Milwaukee
Parents are more likely to "strongly agree" students are safe in schools

+

These positive effects are all large. For example, the most recent federal evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program found that vouchers increased the likelihood that parents and students reported that the students were in very safe schools by more than 35 percent. Data from the state-mandated evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program showed that vouchers increased the likelihood that parents strongly agreed that their children were safe in class by 48 percent. In addition, a study found that school vouchers in D.C., New York City, and Ohio largely reduced the likelihood that parents reported school problems such as fighting, destruction of property, and racial conflict.

But this evidence shouldn't surprise us all that much. When given the opportunity to choose schools, parents frequently put their children's safety at the top of the list. In fact, a 2013 studyshowed that 53 percent of families listed safety as a top reason for choosing certain private schools for their kids. After all, families care about their children's safety more than anyone else.

And private schools have stronger incentives to cater to the needs of families than public schools. Because parents would not voluntarily send their children to dangerous institutions, unsafe private schools would have to improve security or shut down. On the other hand, most children are forced to attend, and parents are forced to pay for, residentially assigned public schools whether they are safe or not.

Children's safety should be our No. 1 priority. And the most rigorous evidence suggests that school vouchers are indeed tickets to safer schools.