What Do Crime Rates Say About Schools?

This is part 2 of a 4-part series on how a diverse set of school opportunities can IMPACT community health.

Health starts in our homes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities… but what does “healthy” look like? This post is the second in a series on the social factors (or determinants) of healthy people. As previously discussed, neighborhoods and schools play a major role in our well-being. Today, we’re highlighting the way schools can influence the character and ethical choices of the next generation (special thanks to Corey DeAngelis and others who recently shared these studies).


Crime reduction is a commonly cited argument for allocating additional resources to schools. Thus, researchers often study connections between crime and drop-out rates or crime and education attainment. Many of these studies find that higher levels of education lead to lower crime rates. However, a more recent study moves beyond “level of education” and examines the effects of school types on crime. 

Researchers from the University of Arkansas looked at whether the freedom to choose one’s school would lower crime rates. Specifically, they studied the criminal activities of students who attended private schools through the Milwaukee Voucher Program. They then carefully matched these students with similar public school students to build a control group. Looking at both groups, they found significant reductions in property-related crimes and drug crimes when families were allowed  to attend the private school of their choosing. 

Similarly, in a study on the impact of high-achieving charter schools, for male students who attended the charter school instead of their assigned school, there was a 100% reduction rate in incarcerated male students. It may sound unbelievable, but that number is correct. While none of the students who won a lottery to attend the charter school were subsequently incarcerated, the lottery losers lost more than just the lottery. Double-digit numbers of losing applicants (4.4%) actually ended up in jail. Educational freedom is often literally about freedom from incarceration too.

The way crime and incarceration affect multigenerational life outcomes is staggering. The US government’s “Healthy People 2020” initiative includes these as key areas that determine whether a community is healthy or not - crime and violence exposure and incarceration rates. Giving families access to more opportunities for education, especially to schools where students might be more engaged due to a school’s focus or mission, seems like an obvious answer to helping communities and neighborhoods cut crime and thrive.

Children who are more engaged at school lead to less crime, better education, and neighborhoods that both are safer and feel safer. Want to talk more about safety? Our next post in the series takes on how “safe” families and students feel at school. Stick with us for the 3rd discussion in our series on how choosing a school can change the quality of life.

Did you miss the first post in the series? Check out: How Healthy is Your Community?