Study: School Choice Lottery Winners Commit Fewer Crimes

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 15, 2012 3 min read
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The success of school-choice initiatives is commonly measured in reading and math scores. But how does being admitted to a preferred school affect other parts of a student’s life?

In an article in Education Next, Harvard University’s David J. Deming argues for looking beyond school-based outcomes, suggesting that that kind of growth can be achieved in ways that do not necessarily lead to long-term success. Instead, he analyzes the impact of winning a school choice lottery on the criminal activity of students in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district over a period of seven years.

Deming follows 2,320 middle schoolers and 1,891 high schoolers who participated in the district’s first school lottery in 2002. (The district’s busing program, intended to force desegregation, was ended in 2001 after a court order said students’ school placement couldn’t be determined by race; this led to an open-enrollment program that included the lottery studied in this article. Deming’s article explains the context well.) North Carolina’s data-reporting requirements allowed Deming to examine various student demographic and achievement characteristics and to match student records with the state’s arrest records. The article focuses on students from this group who were considered to be at high risk of committing crimes due to their demographic and achievement profiles.

Within this group of mostly male, low-income, and African-American students, the author finds that high-risk students who are admitted to their preferred school commit 50 percent less crime, are slightly more likely to stay enrolled in school, and are less likely to be absent or suspended than their peers who lose the lottery. The effects on students who are not at such high risk for criminal activity are not as pronounced, Deming writes: “Indeed, I find little impact either positive or negative of winning a school-choice lottery on criminal activity for the 80 percent of students outside of this group.”

For high-risk students, though, the results are striking. Admission to a preferred middle school correlated with a lower social cost of crime and fewer days incarcerated later on. Admission to a preferred high school was linked to a reduction in the number of felony arrests and the social cost of crime. “High-risk lottery winners on average commit crimes with a total expected sentence of 35 months, compared to 59 months among lottery losers,” Deming writes. The average social cost of crime was $3,916 lower for high school lottery winners, and $7,843 lower for middle school lottery winners, than for lottery losers.

Deming does NOT find gains in test scores or in graduation rates for these high-risk students. Some high-risk middle school students never appear in the high school attendance data, but do show up in arrest records, and high school graduation rates for high-risk middle and high school students are both abysmally low—10% and 25%, respectively. And yet, the data on crime are statistically significant and persistent throughout the course of the seven-year study.

Deming proposes a few explanations. Students may choose schools that are far away from their homes and away from negative peer environments, which may reduce the opportunity for crime and the “contagion” of criminal behaviors. Lottery winners tend to attend higher-quality schools, which means students may learn skills that lead to employability and make crime less appealing. Or students might stay enrolled in the preferred schools longer (even if they don’t graduate) and thus keep out of trouble during the years when many high-risk students first begin committing crimes. Whatever the explanation, Deming suggests that allowing high-risk students to leave low-performing schools, and even giving them priority in school choice lotteries, would benefit society and individual students.

There’s a lot to think about here. As the data-driven reform movement develops, schools and researchers are more likely to look at longer-term outcomes and data that go beyond test scores. Will—and should—students’ criminal activity become a common part of that data set?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.