Many major cities around the country, from New York and New Orleans to Denver and Los Angeles, have changed how children are assigned to public schools over the past 20 years and now allow families to send their children to a school outside of their neighborhood zone. Known as public school choice or open enrollment, this policy gives children in poor neighborhoods a chance at a better education. Many supporters hoped it could also be a way to desegregate schools even as residential neighborhoods remain racially divided.
However, a new study of public school choice in Charlotte, North Carolina, finds a deeply troubling consequence to this well-intended policy: increased crime.
Three university economists studied the criminal justice records of 10,000 boys who were in fifth grade between 2005 and 2008. Thousands wanted to go to highly regarded middle schools, some of which were in nearby suburbs of the large Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. Seats were allocated through a lottery.
The lucky ones, who won a seat to their first choice middle school, were less likely to be arrested or end up in prison between the ages of 16 and 22. But the students left behind in a neighborhood school were much more likely to be arrested or imprisoned as adults. The increase in criminal activity among the 8,000 boys who hadn’t participated in the school lottery was greater than the decrease in criminal activity for the lottery winners. Public school choice ended up increasing overall arrests and days incarcerated for young men, the researchers concluded in a draft paper, “Does School Choice Increase Crime?” circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research in February 2023.
The reason, according to the researchers, is that the boys left behind were surrounded by a less desirable mix of peers. Families who placed a high value on education were more likely to enter a lottery for a well-regarded school, win it and leave the neighborhood school. In Charlotte, these kids were predominantly Black and had higher test scores. From sixth grade onward, these higher achieving kids were no longer interacting socially with the neighborhood kids all day long. Crime itself is a social activity, according to the researchers’ previous studies, and kids are more likely to commit crimes with other kids who live nearby and especially those who attend the same schools. With fewer positive influences at school, kids who might not otherwise have participated in crime were more likely to join in.
“There are many important studies that have documented important, positive effects of school choice,” said Stephen Ross, an economist at the University of Connecticut and one of the three authors. “But our paper says that one should be at least somewhat more careful prior to jumping on the school choice bandwagon because there are also significant costs that might offset the benefits.”
I know, I know. Many of you reading this have questions about the study design. So did I. Let me walk you through it.
It’s impossible to know exactly how much crime people would have committed in adulthood had there been no school choice. But the researchers were able to estimate the influence of the school lottery policy by looking at three separate years of fifth graders in each neighborhood. These are tiny sub-neighborhoods, sometimes just a few blocks in area. The researchers tracked how future criminal activity fluctuated depending upon how many of their peers left for lottery schools. In years when more peers left for lottery schools, the adult crime figures for the children left behind increased. The following year, if fewer peers left for lottery schools, subsequent crime figures fell back again.
Researchers found that it was students they had categorized as “low risk” of getting arrested who were drawn into crime after peers left for lottery schools. The increase in criminal behavior was detected among white children and children with higher test scores. These boys racked up more arrests and days behind bars when more of their elementary school classmates left. Kids at “high risk” of arrest were less affected. Their criminal activity later in adulthood was more stable regardless of how many peers left for lottery schools.
Here are some examples from the study. On average, 44 boys among 1,000 who did not participate in the lottery lost a school peer in their neighborhood to a school lottery. That seemingly small exposure to lottery winners was associated with a 25 percent increase in arrests from an average of 55 arrests to 69 arrests among the boys who were less likely to get arrested. Most children were never arrested in their young adulthood, but the 14 extra arrests among this group of 500 boys are significant. Most of the low-risk children were never incarcerated, but the total days in prison among 500 of them jumped from 600 days to 1,000 days behind bars.
The researchers only looked at how public school lotteries affected criminal activity. By the same logic, however, it’s reasonable to think that charter schools and private school vouchers could trigger worrisome crime increases if they siphon away the best students from the local, neighborhood schools. But that hasn’t been proven.
This isn’t the first study to notice unintended consequences from open enrollment policies. A 2018 report by The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School pointed out the “Paradox of Choice.” In New York, the siphoning off of students also siphoned the funds that schools receive. Less desirable local neighborhood schools were left with fewer resources and deteriorated even more. Also unexpected was how schools had become even more segregated. Sought-after schools had become extremely selective in choosing students with the highest grades and test scores. Fewer Black and Hispanic students were being admitted.
Charlotte introduced public school choice a few years after busing ended in 2001. It was a well intended effort to prevent schools from resegregating along racial lines, and to give children a better shot at a quality education. But this study shows that there are unexpected connections between schools and communities. A good solution for one problem can sometimes create a whole new one.
This story about the effects of a school lottery was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters.