Schools are expected to prepare children to become good citizens. They can help achieve this goal by producing a well-educated populace and promoting strong character. But not all school systems equally contribute to the public good. Indeed, the evidence shows school choice does more to cut crime than residentially-assigned public schools. Here are the facts.
Yet another study just came out revealing the crime-reducing benefits of school choice. Researchers found that entering a charter school in North Carolina in 9th grade reduced the rate at which students were convicted of felonies by 36% and the rate at which they were convicted of misdemeanors as adults by 38%, compared to their peers in traditional public schools.
But this isn't the first study to show that school choice reduces crime. There are now six rigorous studies on the subject, and all six studies find that school choice cuts crime.
For example, a study by researchers at Harvard and Princeton found that winning a lottery to attend a charter school in New York City reduced the likelihood of incarceration for male students by 100%. That's right. Winning a lottery to attend a charter school in NYC all-but completely eliminated the chance of incarceration for male students in the sample. But that's not all — the study also found that winning a charter school lottery reduced teen pregnancy by 59% for female students.
Another study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that winning a lottery to attend a public school of choice cut crime in half, a 50% reduction, for high-risk male students in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Two studies — conducted by Dr. Patrick J. Wolf and I — similarly found that students using the Milwaukee voucher program to attend private schools were significantly less likely to commit crimes than their carefully matched peers in traditional public schools by the time they reached 22 to 28 years of age. The 2016 version is forthcoming at Social Science Quarterly.
But why does school choice reduce crime?
Traditional public schools hold significant monopoly power because of residential assignment and funding through property taxes. Families upset with the quality of their public school only have three limited options: They can purchase an expensive new house that is assigned to a better public school, pay for a private school out of pocket while still paying for the public school through property taxes, or complain to the school leaders and hope things change.
Because these options are expensive and inefficient, there is not a lot of pressure for residentially-assigned public schools to provide the best character education possible. In contrast, private and charter schools must cater to the needs of families if they wish to remain open.
School choice puts power into the hands of families. And families usually know what's best for their own kids.
But competition isn't the only explanation. School choice could also reduce crime by matchingstudents to schools that interest them, and by exposing students to peer groups and school cultures that discourage risky behaviors.
So, it's about time we rethink the notion that residentially-assigned public schools contribute most to the public good. After all, every single study on the topic finds that school choice does more to benefit society by reducing crime.