Investing in schools reduces adult crime and pays back for itself in the long run, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Michigan say crime doesn’t pay — and it doesn’t even happen as much when we invest in early education. The findings are based on a study that tracked two groups of students from kindergarten to adulthood to determine how school funding impacts levels of adult crime. They report that there is quite a powerful link between the two.
“Michigan’s school funding equalization process led to otherwise similar students receiving drastically different funding amounts during elementary school,” the report says. “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.”
The team used data from the Michigan Department of Education, Center for Educational Performance, National Student Clearinghouse, and Michigan State Police for their study. Data on the two groups of tracked individuals was collated from these sources and used to compare the outcomes of “treated” students with those of the “control” group. Participants of the control group attended school as children in districts and years that did not receive substantial funding increases.
Based on these figures, the team drew a couple of conclusions. First off, students that attended better-funded elementary schools, when compared to their peers, were taught by teachers with more experience who earned higher pay, in smaller classes, and in schools with a larger number of administrative positions.
Such a background would seem to foster a higher-quality level of education, and the second finding supports that: students who attended better-funded elementary schools had better academic and behavioral outcomes, and higher overall educational attainment, than the control group. They were 15% less likely to be arrested through to age 30 than their peers.
Finally, the team explains that the decrease in crime seen among the “treated” group would correspond to social savings in excess of the extra funding allocated to their schools. In other words, any investment in the schools ended up paying for itself — and more — over the study period, representing a net gain for the community.
Based on these points, the authors propose that policymakers increase public school funding both as a way to reduce criminality and in order to generate more well-being for society. It has to be noted that apart from the savings associated with reduced criminality, better-educated citizens are more productive, healthier, and more dynamic from an economic and civic perspective; the benefit they bring to their community is very likely far greater than the monetary savings quantified by the researchers in this study.
It’s also worth noting that costs and monetary gain aren’t the only factors at play here. More educated and less-incarcerated individuals in general have much more satisfying lives, with a greater quality of life. Investing in public schools, then, not only benefits society from a fiscal point of view but also gives future generations a much better shot at a much better life. And that’s always a goal worth working towards.
“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,” the researchers say in the study. “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.”
A pre-publication version of the paper “Public School Funding, School Quality, and Adult Crime” is available at the National Bureau of Economic Research.