“Does investing in public education reduce crime in adulthood?” That is the essential question being examined by Brittany Vasquez, Jason Baron, and Joshua Hyman, recent and current PhD affiliates of the Education Policy Initiative (EPI). Their work recently was awarded an Early Career Scholars Grant by Policy Impacts, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of government decision-making by promoting standardization in policy analysis.
The researchers use variation in public school funding from a 1994 reform in Michigan coupled with administrative data that recently linked public school records and adult arrests in Michigan for the first time. The grant announcement notes, “Their data allow them to follow more than 700,000 students across 500+ school districts. They will estimate the Marginal Value of Public Funds (MVPF) of increasing public school funding accounting for long-run outcomes including adult criminality in addition to high school graduation, college enrollment, and college graduation.”
Policy Impacts focuses on MVPF, as “the MVPF methodology allows decision makers to compare the impacts of different types of policies and identify policies that have the highest returns on investment.”
Preliminary results of the research suggest that exposure to higher levels of public school funding does reduce arrests in young adulthood, underscoring the importance of including changes to crime outcomes in both the willingness-to-pay and net cost when calculating the MVPF of increasing public school funding.
Specifically, they find that students exposed to ten percent more primary school spending experienced a sixteen percent reduction in the probability of being arrested as an adult. This effect was concentrated in low-income school districts, and driven by reductions in all major crime types, such as violent, property, and drug crimes. Exploring mechanisms, they find that treated students had higher elementary-school (though not middle-school) test scores and middle school attendance rates, were less likely to repeat a middle school grade and be placed in a juvenile detention center, and were more likely to graduate high school. However, improvements in all of these intermediate outcomes can explain less than a third of the overall crime effect, suggesting that previous knowledge of how additional school funding impacts test scores and educational attainment does not predict its effect on adult crime. Preliminary calculations suggest that increasing school spending can be a cost-effective crime reduction strategy.
Vasquez is a doctoral student in public policy and sociology at U-M and an Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) predoctoral fellow at EPI. Baron is an assistant professor of economics at Duke University, and was an IES postdoctoral fellow at EPI 2020-2021. Hyman completed his PhD in public policy and economics at U-M in 2013 and is currently assistant professor of economics at Amherst College.