Investment in public schools reduces contact with criminal justice system - EPI working paper

May 10, 2022

Increased investment in public schools pays off through reductions in adult crime, a new Education Policy Initiative brief shows. The working paper, “Public School Funding, School Quality, and Adult Crime,” authored by E. Jason Baron, Joshua Hyman, and Brittany Vasquez, investigates if increased funding for public schools reduces crime rates. 

Using data from the Michigan Department of Education, the Center for Educational Performance, the National Student Clearinghouse, and the Michigan State Police, the authors tracked two groups of students from kindergarten to adulthood. 

“Michigan’s school funding equalization process led to otherwise similar students receiving drastically different funding amounts during elementary school,” they write. “Some students with ‘luck’ attended elementary school in a school district and year in which the state assigned large increases in spending in order to equalize funds across districts. We compare the outcomes of these ‘treated’ students to those of children attending elementary schools in districts and years that did not receive large increases in funding (‘control’ students).”

Tracking the outcomes of these two groups of students, Baron, Hyman, and Vasquez come to four conclusions:

  1. Students who attended better-funded elementary schools were taught by teachers with greater experience and earning higher salaries, were in smaller class sizes, and attended schools with a larger number of administrators such as vice-principals.
  2. Students who attended better-funded schools were 15% less likely to be arrested through age 30.
  3. A likely reason for the observed reduction in adult arrests is that students in better-funded schools had better academic and behavioral outcomes, and higher educational attainment.
  4. The reductions in adult crime alone generate social savings that exceed the costs to the government of increasing school funding.

In the working paper, the authors propose two key policy takeaways. First, they emphasize that increases in public school funding early in children’s lives can reduce adult crime.

“While many policies focus on the crime-deterring effects of additional policing or tougher criminal justice sanctions, our findings highlight that early investments in children’s lives can prevent contact with the adult criminal justice system,” they write. “Specifically, our results show that improving public schools can keep children on a path of increased school engagement and completion, thereby lowering their criminal propensity in adulthood.”

Second, the authors highlight that increases in public school funding generate important benefits to society, not just improved academic outcomes and educational attainment.

“Most studies examining the benefits of increases in school funding focus on outcomes primarily measuring individual returns such as student test scores or educational attainment,” they note. “Our results show that increases in school funding can indeed bring positive benefits to society through reductions in criminal activity, and that investing in social programs may have benefits that extend beyond their intended purpose and recipients.”