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.