Are school choice and integration the secret ingredients to lowering crime?

Young African-American men at risk of committing crimes were much less likely to do so when they attended higher-performing schools outside their neighborhoods, according to a study published today in Education Next.

The study, by David Deming, a professor of education and economics at Harvard, looked at students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the North Carolina school district where the concept of busing as a remedy to school segregation was born. 

In 2001, the school district dismantled its desegregation plan, but kept in place a plan that gave preference to low-income students seeking to enroll in higher-income schools or other schools outside their neighborhoods. Deming compared students who were selected in a lottery to leave their neighborhood with those who weren’t selected (as space constraints limited students’ choices).

The study is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, it didn’t focus on test-scores as a measure of student outcomes. Achievement on tests is often the default in studies like this one, but educators and others often criticize the heavy reliance on standardized scores because the tests are narrow and often flawed or easily gamed. As Deming puts it in his report: “Programs can yield long-term benefits without raising test scores, and test-score gains are no guarantee that impacts will persist over time.” 

Instead, Deming used criminal behavior as the primary measure of how well students turned out. He tracked whether students who were at particularly high risk of committing crimes—meaning they had low test-scores, lived in high-crime neighborhoods, and had other characteristics associated with criminal behavior—actually did so. Those who enrolled in their school of choice were much less likely to get into trouble than those who weren’t given the opportunity to do so.

The second interesting issue raised by the study is what’s at play in producing those outcomes. The author attributes the results to the fact that students were able to choose (something school-choice advocates like to hear).

But I wonder whether it was instead the fact that they were able to attend more economically integrated schools, as the point of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg plan was to promote voluntary desegregation. Plenty of research suggests that disadvantaged students perform much better in racially integrated schools.

I asked Deming if it was school choice per se that improved student outcomes, or the fact that students attended more integrated schools. Here’s how he responded:

“This is a hard question to answer with certainty. The mechanism for crime reduction could be better educational opportunities, economic integration, or a change in their exposure to negative peer influences. Probably it is a combination of all of these things.

“One thing I will say is that the choice schools were fairly similar in terms of race and free-lunch status (an indicator of poverty) to the students’ neighborhood schools, although the choice schools had higher-achieving students in them. In other words, students chose schools where their peers were similar demographically but better academically. In that sense, I would say that integration was probably not the main mechanism, although it may have played a role.”

So, choice appears to have mattered, but so might have the demographic composition of the schools the students attended. Perhaps this study suggests a point where two sides of the education debate can find common ground?