School Choice Can Help Quell Urban Violence

Lewis M. Andrews Freelance Policy Writer
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What is most remarkable about reports of escalating urban violence across America is that politicians and the media remain just as narrowly focused on police tactics in the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore. Even as 2015 murder rates for Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City (Missouri), New Orleans, St. Louis, Washington, DC, have skyrocketed by double digits over the same period a year ago, the extent to which serious adult crime is a direct function of youthful lawbreaking continues to be ignored.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juveniles between 12 and 18 are typically responsible for 27 percent of a community’s serious violent victimizations, 30 percent of its robberies, and 27 percent of aggravated assaults. The more the number of young offenders in a city increases, in other words, the more dangerous its streets become just a few years later.

What this tells us is that the public institution which has the earliest and most frequent contact with likely criminals is not the police department or even the courthouse but the local school. This is actually good news once we realize that the willingness of a school system to offer families a choice of schools has a dramatic impact on the tendency of its students to commit serious crimes.

Consider the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS) in North Carolina, which in 2002 found itself under court order to end an unpopular busing program that had failed to end segregation. In response, the CMS board decided to create a genuine open enrollment program, encouraging parents to pick the schools where they would most like to send their children and dealing with over-subscribed placements by lottery. At the time, approximately 45 percent of the district’s middle and high school students were African American, a rapidly growing Hispanic population accounted for an additional 10 percent, and about half of all 150,000 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

Harvard Associate Professor of Education David J. Deming, who followed the CMS experiment for over seven years, found that winning the lottery – that is, being able to attend the school of a family’s choosing – greatly reduced the likelihood of a student committing a violent felony or other serious offense, especially if the student were in a crime-prone demographic. “High risk lottery winners,” he found, “experienced roughly a 50 percent reduction in the measures of criminal activity that weigh crimes by their severity.”

Deming’s finding of a strong connection between access to a quality education and the reluctance to commit serious crime has since been supported by other research. The late University of Chicago professor Gary Becker has shown how the perceived opportunity to prosper, even if it is in the distant future after graduating from a good school, dramatically reduces anyone’s willingness to risk arrest.

Anyone really serious about reducing urban crime should be pushing for stricter implementation of Section 9532 of President George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which mandates a school transfer option to students who have been victims of violent crime or attend a school deemed “persistently dangerous” by local authorities. What this means is that any state receiving federal funding under NCLB must define in writing what constitutes a dangerous school and establish procedures whereby the effected children can be educated elsewhere.

Sadly, many state legislatures and boards of education seem more interested in protecting the jobs of failing teachers and administrators than the well-being of children and their communities.  Looking for ways to skirt the law’s requirements, local authorities typically aggregate data on violent incidences for all schools in a district, thus hiding the identity of the worst ones.  

At the end of the 2003-2004 school year, for example, only 52 of the nation’s 92,000 public schools had been labeled “persistently dangerous.” For the 2012-2013 school year, the most recent period for which the U.S. Department of Education has cumulative data, just 45 were similarly tagged.

Thanks to bold experiments like the one in North Carolina, the ability of school choice to reduce urban violence is now an established fact.  What is missing from efforts to make the nation’s cities safer is the willingness of elected officials to acknowledge and act on it.