Think about this. In Wisconsin, 1 in every 8 working age African-American men are currently in prison or jail. The incarceration rate for African-American males in Wisconsin is the highest in the country. Children are raised without fathers. Those re-entering the workforce face enormous difficultly finding employment, which exacerbates the recidivism rate. All of this explains the environment that parents and educators face in Wisconsin’s urban areas; where going to prison may be seen as the norm, or even a rite of passage.
It is, therefore, not a surprise that many parents in the inner city, when choosing a school for their child, are more concerned about which school can keep their child out of jail rather than which has the highest standardized test scores.
For years, advocates for school vouchers have made the case that private schools are more effective at keeping students on the right path, but few studies have examined this question. One important exception was a 2015 study by School Choice Wisconsin finding that private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have much lower 9-1-1 calls than traditional Milwaukee Public Schools.
This week, scholars Corey De Angelis and Dr. Patrick Wolf from the University of Arkansas have added to the debate by completing one of the most comprehensive studies on the effect of private school attendance on criminal activity. The results are astonishing.
In their new working paper, authors De Angelis and Wolf examine whether attending a private school in Milwaukee reduces the chances of incarceration later in life. To answer this question, the authors matched students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) with similar students in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). This sophisticated matching method represents the cutting-edge in quantitative analysis, and comes as close as possible to the “gold standard” of experimentation. De Angelis and Wolf compared students in each group with Wisconsin criminal records data bases to determine if there are differences in the likelihood that each group of students committed a crime in the years following high school.
The results were staggering. Accounting for race, parental factors and other important demographics, the study found that 12 years in a private school reduced the likelihood of a person committing a felony by approximately 3%, and the likelihood of committing a misdemeanor by 5%. For the subgroup of male students, the likelihood of being accused any crime dropped by an impressive 17%.
The effects of the voucher on crime are generally small and insignificant for students who merely went to private school at some point during their academic career. In other words, when compared to similar students at MPS, the longer a student used a voucher to attend a private school in Milwaukee, the less likely that student would commit a crime.
De Angelis and Wolf do not have the data to examine why exposure to a private school education is lowering crime rates. One could speculate that the ability of private schools to utilize clear moral messages rooted in some authority other than “whatever is right for you” may instill in students a more “binding” sense of right and wrong. Compare that to the public schools, where political correctness dictates that little can be black-and-white and where values are something that you choose rather than something that comes from a source outside of yourself. Some private schools even make it part of their mission to keep their former students out of prison. One private school that I visited recently in Milwaukee actively tracked the number of their graduates who had been imprisoned for several years after leaving the school. Such a metric may, at first blush, seem like an endorsement of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” But in an environment where the threat of prison is ever present, it is perhaps better seen as the first step on the path to success.
This study is a critical reminder that there is more to inner city education than simply standardized test scores.