Study: School Choice Reduces Crime

Published February 23, 2012

High-risk young men who are admitted by lottery to the schools they choose commit fewer crimes and remain in school longer, according to a new study of North Carolina students.

Author David Deming, professor of education and economics at Harvard University, studied 6th to 11th graders in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district who took part in school choice lotteries conducted from 2002-2009. He researched the social cost of various crimes and calculated the savings associated with school choice.

“We should be really excited that recent research connects expanded school choice with greater educational attainment and reduced crime,” said Patrick Wolf, endowed chair in school choice studies at the University of Arkansas. “Those are vital outcomes, both for individuals and for society.”

Deming found young African-American men from high-poverty neighborhoods, on average, committed 0.43 fewer felonies if admitted to the high school of their choice through a lottery. Deming also found high-risk high school students who lost lotteries and committed crimes were given sentences 24 months longer than their lottery-winning peers.

“The fact that these impacts are concentrated among high-risk students has important implications for the design of school-choice programs,” he wrote. “It may make sense for oversubscribed schools of choice to give preferential admission to students at greatest risk of criminal activity.”

Lowering the Crime Rate
Lottery-winning middle school students in the high-risk category did not commit fewer felonies than their peers, but they did commit fewer violent crimes. Lottery winners who went on to commit crimes were given sentences 64 percent shorter than their losing peers.

School choice students were also 18 percent more likely than those who lost the lottery to remain enrolled in school in 10th grade.

“The cost of crime is a social cost, and it’s borne by society versus an individual,” Deming said. “When you’re preventing crime, you’re helping the student and helping those who would be a victim of crime.”

Behind the Numbers
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s size, demographic diversity, and decade-long campaign to increase school choice after years of race-based busing made it a rich research environment, Deming said.

Deming determined four main reasons for crime reduction among lottery winners: incapacitation, contagion, attending a higher-quality school, and better opportunities for paid work.

When bused outside of their local school district, students are “incapacitated,” or kept off the streets, for longer periods and have less opportunity to commit crime.

As for “contagion,” “winning the lottery prevents crime by removing high-risk youth from crime-prone peers or neighborhoods,” the study reported.

Students who develop better skills have more and better job opportunities, making crime less attractive to them. That means school choice has two kinds of benefits, Deming said.

“Crime reduction has a social benefit, whereas increases in [student] earnings have a private benefit,” he noted.

Using the ‘Gold Standard’
The most important thing about the study is its “gold standard” methodology,” Wolf said. The research gold standard uses random assignment to select its subjects, which eliminates outside factors from the results. Deming’s study subjects all wanted to attend a choice school, so “presumably all had the same expected likelihood of subsequently committing serious crimes,” Wolf explained.

“Due to that rigorous methodology, we can be confident that the opportunity to exercise school choice caused the students to commit fewer serious crimes down the road,” he said. “All other potential causes of that outcome, except for mere chance, can be ruled out. More public school choice resulted in less crime, period.”

In addtion, Wolf said, Deming’s study directly links even having the opportunity for school choice with an outcome of less felony arrests, since students who lost the lotteries also committed fewer crimes than those who did not enter lotteries.

“We do [random assignment studies] because they give us the best possible way to study the effects of these programs,” said Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Beyond Test Scores
Students in Deming’s study who won school choice lotteries did not have significantly better standardized test scores. His results introduce the idea that school choice benefits society beyond individual achievement.

According to research he has conducted with parent focus groups, Wolf said parents are less concerned with student test scores than personal growth.

“They think a school is working for their child if the student is doing homework, talking about school, excited to go to school in the morning, thinking about graduation and college enrollment, those types of what we might call ‘intermediate outcomes’ of attending a good school,” Wolf said.

Parents want their children to develop habits of self-discipline and perseverance, he continued, which ultimately help children succeed both in school and life.

“It may very well be that school choice has its most dramatic effect on these character traits of children, which would explain why we’ve seen stronger and more consistent effects of choice on such outcomes as high school graduation and crime reduction and less dramatic and consistent effects of choice on standardized test scores,” Wolf said.

The Impact of School Choice
Winters said school reformers’ long-term goal is to remove lotteries from determining who receives a good education. Until then, lotteries are one way to produce positive outcomes and fairly select among the many who want it, he said.

“Schools matter,” Deming said. “Even if the child drops out a year early, the school still makes an impact.”


Learn more:
“Does School Choice Reduce Crime?” David Deming, Spring 2012:

Image by Alan Cleaver.