In theory, private schools are better positioned to provide moral education than are their public counterparts because they can tailor character lessons to those who choose to attend. A new study from Corey A. DeAngelis and Patrick J. Wolf seeks to test that theory, examining the adult behavior and criminal activity of individuals who once participated in Milwaukee’s school voucher program. They find that, indeed, former voucher students now have lighter criminal records, and are caught up in fewer paternity disputes, than their public school counterparts.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is the nation’s oldest citywide voucher program, started in 1990 and expanded repeatedly since then. Unlike in other systems, MPCP students first enroll in a private school of their choice and then apply for a voucher from the city. By the 2014–2015 school year, 25 percent of Milwaukee’s students were participating in MPCP. The eligible income levels have also changed periodically; in the 2006 cohort, which this study covers, participating families could not have earnings that exceeded 175 percent of the poverty line.

To study the non-cognitive effects of MPCP, DeAngelis and Wolf compared eighth and ninth grade voucher students to similar public school students, matching characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, initial test score, and neighborhood of residence. They then examined Wisconsin Court System records for each matched student, counting ten types of offenses including felonies, misdemeanors, drug offenses, and property damage. It should be noted that one crime might fall into more than one of these categories; for example, a property damage charge may also be a misdemeanor, in which case the authors counted the crime twice. They also tallied involvement in paternity lawsuits, which can be seen as a proxy for irresponsible behavior.

Overall, DeAngelis and Wolf find that participation in MPCP is correlated with a reduction in nearly all of these criminal and antisocial behavioral measures. In their preferred model of analysis, the largest drop was in property damage convictions, which were 86 percent lower among MPCP students, or 8 percent of a standard deviation. Drug convictions fell by 53 percent, and paternity suits fell by 38 percent.

As they expected, the researchers identified a stronger effect on crime rates for males than for females. However, female involvement in paternity suits dropped substantially—34 percent—as well. Students with varying baseline test scores also experienced different outcomes. For example, those students with high initial reading scores experienced a $200 reduction in total criminal fines, while those with low reading scores actually saw a slight increase in fines. Students with high math scores experienced a significant drop in theft and traffic offenses, while low math scorers experienced a significantly larger reduction in paternity suits, but not in other criminal charges as the authors predicted.

Despite varying results across all eleven categories, DeAngelis and Wolf conclude that, overall, MPCP students demonstrated “equal or better” character skills over time, up to twelve years after their participation. The dramatic reductions in property and drug offenses and in paternity lawsuits are certainly the most encouraging results.

Like most investigations into the effects of school choice, this study cannot entirely control for the unobservable differences between students that might lead to different outcomes, although they suggest that by matching students living in the same neighborhood, they partially account for characteristics like motivation and values. Moreover, the authors examine only one cohort of students from 2006; it would be helpful to understand whether these results are consistent between classes and over time.

And ultimately, while more research on school choice and its effects on crime is necessary, the low bar of “not committing crimes” or “not being a deadbeat dad” should not be our only expectation from moral education. It is an important start, but further inquiry into socially beneficial behaviors like charitable donations and community service will also be valuable in completing our view of moral education in private and charter schools.

SOURCE: Corey A. DeAngelis and Patrick J. Wolf, “Private School choice and Character: More Evidence from Milwaukee,” Department of Education Reform, Working Paper Series, University of Arkansas (February 2019).

Jessie McBirney is a development and research associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A California native, she moved to Washington, DC, after graduating from Biola University with a bachelor's degree in political science. Most recently she worked at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, doing government advocacy on issues such as financial aid and college accreditation.