Choosing the right path: evidence that Milwaukee’s school choice program excels beyond academics

One of the largest and oldest Lutheran high schools in the nation, Milwaukee Lutheran High School participates in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, allowing families who meet the household income requirements to attend at no charge or for significantly reduced tuition.

America’s oldest urban private school choice program has the vital effects of steering young adults away from both crime and out-of-wedlock births, thus laying a strong foundation for them to live more successful lives.

What predicts future life success for young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds? Two vital factors are avoiding a criminal record (see here and here) and an out-of-wedlock birth.

That reality might be one reason why private schools often describe their mission as educating the “whole child,” mind, body and soul. Education should shape the character of students in positive ways. Strong character traits, such as conscientiousness and self-restraint, are especially important for youth growing up in challenged family circumstances. They rarely get second chances.

Given that avoiding a criminal record and refraining from causing a non-marital birth are keys to life success, and private schools may have advantages over public schools in promoting the character traits of their charges, it is shocking that almost no research has been conducted on the effects of private school choice programs on rates of crime and out-of-wedlock births.

Corey A. DeAngelis, director of school choice at the Reason Foundation, and I have set out to fill that gaping hole in our understanding of the potential long-term, life-changing effects of school choice.

Our first foray examined the medium-term effects of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) on the likelihood of a person being charged with a crime by age 22-25. The MPCP is restricted to low-income families in Milwaukee. We matched more than 1,000 eighth- and ninth-grade students in the MPCP in 2006 with Milwaukee public schools (MPS) students in the same grade, with the same race, gender, English Language Learner status, and similar initial achievement test scores.

Importantly, we also matched the MPCP students with peers from their own neighborhood. Family values and behavioral expectations tend to be similar in urban neighborhoods, so matching students based on where they lived likely helped us control for vital unmeasured factors.

We then searched the public database of all criminal records for the state of Wisconsin as of fall 2015. The searchers were not aware if a given student was in the MPCP group or the MPS group when they looked to see if that study participant had committed a crime in the state. We found that MPCP students who remained in their private school of choice throughout their high school years were significantly less likely to have committed a crime during young adulthood, compared to their matched peers in MPS.

When MPCP students who switched from their private high school to a public school were included in the analysis, however, the effect of the MPCP on reducing crime became less clear. We concluded that students may need a steady “dose” of the character education treatment of private schooling for it to change their life trajectory.

Our initial study was published last year in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science Quarterly.

This year, we returned to the question with more and better data. We also employed more conservative analytic methods, to be even more confident that the selectivity of MPCP students was not biasing our results. In a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Private Enterprise, we revisited the same set of MPCP and matched MPS students three years later, when they were 25-28 years old. The additional three years gave the MPCP students more time to distinguish themselves from their MPS peers regarding avoiding criminal behavior.

We also found data on paternity suits in Wisconsin and added that key outcome variable to our study. Finally, we did not separate out students who stayed in the MPCP for their entire high school career from those who switched back to MPS. Thus, we conservatively tested to see if experiencing the private school choice program for any length of time from eighth to twelfth grade affected crime outcomes or non-marital birth rates. In these three ways, our recent study improved upon our original one.

We found that participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program reduced the likelihood of a young adult having a drug conviction by 53%. The MPCP also decreased the chances of a person having a conviction for a property damage crime by an astounding 86%. MPCP alums were 38% less likely than their matched MPS peers to have been named in a paternity suit by age 25-28.

The positive effects of the private school choice program on reducing criminality were larger for males, who commit most crimes, and for participants with lower initial achievement test scores. The benefit of the MPCP in reducing the likelihood of causing a non-marital birth was similar for both males and females, since it takes two to tango.

Our research was not designed to reveal what the private schools in the MPCP did to generate these reductions in crime and out-of-wedlock births. Religion, re-enforcing parental values, and the influence of better-behaved peers all may have played a role. Future research should continue to study those questions.

For now, we can say that America’s oldest urban private school choice program had the vital effects of steering young adults away from both crime and out-of-wedlock births, thus laying a strong foundation for them to live more successful lives.

That’s a big deal.