School Choice Is Improving Students’ Long‐​Term Mental Health — We Have the Data to Show It

This article appeared on Washington Examiner on October 30, 2018.
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The Federal Commission on School Safety, created shortly after the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla., traveled all around the country this year holding public listening sessions to figure out how to reduce school violence. Several people in the meetings called for strengthening security by mandating clear backpacks, hiring more security officers, and arming public school teachers with guns. Others addressed the deeper issue: student mental health.

Likely because of this information, the Department of Justice recently started giving school districts more than $70 million in federal funding to improve school safety. Much of this funding went toward hiring more counselors and training teachers how to identify student mental health problems. But while these federal grants are well-intended, there may be a better solution.

Our just-released study uses state-level data from 49 states and nationally representative student-level data from 4,353 students to examine the effects of school choice on teen suicides and adult mental health.

After controlling for factors such as demographics and economic output, our state-level results generally find that the enactments of private and public school choice laws reduce teen suicides.

After controlling for several student and family background characteristics, including a post-baseline measure of mental health, our student-level results suggest that private schooling improves mental health in the long-run.

Specifically, we find that private schooling reduces the likelihood that individuals report a mental health disorder at around 30 years of age by 2.2 percentage points. We also find that that private schooling reduces the number of times these individuals report being seen for mental illnesses. Both of these student-level effects are moderate in size, as they each translate to around a 14 percent of a standard deviation improvement in mental health.

But why?

Families value the overall health and safety of their children more than anyone else. Private schools must cater to the needs of their customers if they want to remain open. Of course, informed families will not voluntarily send their children to schools that harm them mentally or physically. However, monopoly power allows residentially assigned public schools to remain open whether or not they are safe. Put differently, residential assignment means that public schools have little incentive to provide the safest educational experience possible.

But that's not all. Residential assignment and government regulations also make it as difficult as possible for leaders to create strong school cultures and missions.

Physical danger, bullying, disorder, drugs, and restrictions on student liberty could all lead to various long-term mental health issues. The preponderance of the scientific evidence on the subject indicates that private school choice decreases the chances of each of these problems occurring at schools.

Of course, much more research is needed on this topic. Our study is the first evaluation linking school choice policies to mental health issues. But our results, and basic economic theory, suggest that school choice could address the roots of the student mental health problem.

Corey A. DeAngelis and Angela Dills

Corey DeAngelis is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Angela K. Dills is a Professor of Economics and the Gimelstob-Landry Distinguished Professor of Regional Economic Development at Western Carolina University.