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Can school choice help keep kids out of jail?
New study of Milwaukee voucher program echoes earlier research in North Carolina, but data limitations leave some skeptics unconvinced. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Could giving underprivileged families vouchers for private school to get their kids out of chaotic public school classrooms reduce crime down the road? A new study on Milwaukee's voucher program suggests this may already be happening.

The study, led by University of Arkansas education professor Patrick Wolf, looks at the nation's oldest and largest private school voucher program, which gives taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers to poor families to attend private schools.

The program began in 1990 with just 350 students at nonreligious private schools. The Legislature expanded the program steadily, with a large jump coming in 1998 when the state Supreme Court opened the program to religious schools. The court ruled that because parents were making the choice with the voucher, there was no violation of the First Amendment prohibition on religious establishment by the state.

Today the Milwaukee voucher program serves over 27,000 low-income children scattered in 110 private schools in the city. And if Wolf is right, the program may be reducing crime by expanding the horizons of kids from rough neighborhoods and poor families.

Wolf's study suggests that males, in particular, benefit from attending private schools using vouchers. The study found 79 percent reductions for felonies, a 93 percent reduction for drug-related crimes, and overall, a 42 percent drop for any conviction.

The hypothesis

Is it a reasonable hypothesis that school vouchers sending low-income kids to private schools could cut crime? It depends on who the kids are, says David Deming, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

"There's nothing magic about a voucher," Deming said in an email, "It's just a vehicle for gaining access to a different school. So if the voucher allows a disadvantaged young man to leave a disorderly school in a crime-ridden neighborhood, then I would not be surprised at all if vouchers reduced crime. If it allows an affluent youth to attend a religious school at a lower price instead of your average suburban public, then yes I would be surprised."

Deming, in fact, found very similar results in his 2002 study of charter schools in North Carolina, comparing students who got into a charter via lottery to those who ended up attended a neighborhood school instead because they lost the lottery. Using the lottery system, Deming was able to do something very close to the random assignment gold standard.

Winning the lottery to the charter school, Deming found, sharply decreased the risk of a student later committing crime, especially drug or violent crimes. Deming's study found that "winning a school-choice lottery reduces the average social cost of the crimes committed by middle school students by $7,843, or 63 percent. It also reduces the total expected sentence of crimes committed by each student by 31 months (64 percent)."

Disputed methods

Wolf sees Deming's closely parallel results as a good indicator that his results are on the right track. Although Deming focused on public charter schools rather than pivate vouchers, the logic is essentially the same: expand the horizon of low-income children beyond their toxic neighborhood and failing school, and you change their lives.

But some skeptics remain unconvinced that Wolf has proven anything. The dispute over Wolf's methods and the resulting data, which can grow quite heated, reflect the ideological divides teacher unions versus school choice advocates that shape many of today's education debates.

"The methods they use here are notoriously wobbly," says Alex Molnar, a research professor in education at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

One challenge Wolf faced is that the voucher programs have high attrition rates, and only those who finish high school in the program seem to benefit. To ensure an apples to apples comparison, he uses a "matching" approach to approximate a true experiment.

Each voucher student who "persisted" in the private school to graduation was matched by "grade, neighborhood, race, gender, English Language Learner (ELL) status and math and reading test scores" to a student who did not use a voucher.

In theory, matching students carefully by characteristics can achieve the same results as random selection. The method Wolf uses, known as "propensity score matching," is widely used and mainstream, but also somewhat controversial, says Ron Zimmer, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

Motives & sources

The statistical methods are so arcane that the average consumer will never be able to parse the disputes. Instead, journalist and readers tend to judge the researchers by the company they keep.

There is an ongoing battle between Wolf and Molnar and their respective institutions. Unfortunately, casual observers often allow that battle to serve as a substitute for understanding the disputes over methods and data.

Patrick Wolf is a professor of education policy and holds an endowed chair in school choice in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, with financial ties to the Walton Foundation, a major player in school choice advocacy. Critics of Wolf's work accuse him of being a shill of the "corporate reformist agenda."

Alex Molnar is director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The NEPC is an outspoke critic of school choice research. Critics of the NEPC, such as Wolf, view that organization as being stooges for the teacher unions, unable or unwilling to look at data on the merits.

Zimmer said he does not buy into the notion that funding sources invalidate research. He emphasizes the role played by peer review, and notes that he is currently doing a charter school study funded by the Walton Foundation that did not find positive results.

"Walton was fine with that, Zimmer said. "Walton has a passion, but they are funding research and better the researchers be independent."

Future research

Whatever Wolf's motives, his study does conclude with strong caveats about the limitation of the research and the methods. The caveats begin, in fact, with the question mark in the title of the report itself, "The School Choice Voucher: A Get Out of Jail Free Card?"

"We are putting great demands on limited data, and they are giving us a little but not a lot in terms of clear results," Wolf said. There is a lot that still needs to be learned, Wolf acknowledges, and views his contribution as one step in a research agenda.

"I think it is premature to use these results for policymaking," Zimmer agreed, "but I also dont think they should be dismissed out of hand. I think the authors will be pushed quite a bit during a peer review process to convince the reviewers that their estimates are not the result of selection bias."

Zimmer's provisional view, he said, is the results suggest important lines of attack for more research that pushes "more broadly about the possible benefits of a choice program than just test scores."

In short, Zimmer suggests that comparisons that only look at the academic outcomes of the public and private options in Milwaukee may miss much of what parents are looking for when they choose the latter.

"After all," he says, "parents make the choice to enroll their child in school of choice often for reasons other than test scores."