There’s an old joke often told by economists that goes something like this:
A policeman sees a man looking for something under a streetlight and asks what he has lost. He says he lost his keys and the policeman decides to lend a hand looking for them. After a few minutes, the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them there, and the man replies, no, he lost them on the other side of the street. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the man replies, “well, this is where the light is.”
When education researchers want to measure the impact of a policy or program, they are forced to look where the light is. That usually means looking at student test scores, graduation rates, and a set of relatively limited short-term indicators.
Fortunately, school-choice researchers are starting to look at outcomes beyond just test scores, casting light into areas that were previously shrouded in darkness.
In fact, not only does new research show that school choice can boost test scores and increase the likelihood that low-income students finish college, but studies also suggest that students in school choice programs are less likely than their traditional school peers to commit crimes.
Researchers studying the high-performing Promise Academy in the Harlem Children’s Zone found promising results for students at that school, which uses a lottery system to place students in the limited number of available spots. Four percent of lottery “losers” were incarcerated compared to none of the lottery “winners.” In addition, charter school students were 17 percentage points more likely to enroll in college immediately after high school, and female lottery winners were 10.1 percentage points less likely to report having been pregnant as a teenager than lottery losers.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina used a lottery system to place students into schools that have a limited number of available seats. A study by David J. Deming at Harvard University shows that high school students who “won” the lottery and were placed into their first-choice school were arrested 70 percent less for drug charges and 45 percent less for other felony charges compared to students who entered the lottery but did not secure a spot in their first-choice school.
Schools that use lottery systems for admission are especially helpful for comparison studies because they allow researchers to compare two groups of students who both showed a desire to attend a school of their choosing. But even in situations where there is no lottery, researchers can use other techniques to help ensure the validity of their findings.
For example, researchers from the University of Arkansas found the following reduction in crime rates for male students, relative to incidence rates for their age among the general population: 79 percent for felony crimes, 93 for drug related crimes, and 87 percent for thefts. Because private school enrollment through a voucher program is not capped in Milwaukee, researchers couldn’t sort students into lottery-winner and lottery-loser groups. Instead they “used comparison groups constructed through an algorithm that matched [voucher] students with Milwaukee Public School (MPS) students based on grade, neighborhood, race, gender, English language learner (ELL) status and math and reading test scores” (see page 6 of the study).
These studies are encouraging, and suggest that school choice can not only enrich the lives of students, but also help make our cities and communities safer. No wonder school choice is becoming more popular.