Public School Funding, School Quality, and Adult Crime

Given the large costs of crime to society, there is substantial policy interest in identifying effective crime-prevention strategies. Many studies have focused on the effects of increasing the size of the police force and on the effects of tougher sanctions on criminal activity. However, as budget-constrained cities across the country face increasing calls to allocate additional dollars toward social programs and away from law enforcement, there is growing interest in identifying policies that prevent contact with the criminal justice system to begin with. We ask whether it is possible to reduce crime rates by increasing the amount of funding to a particularly important social program—public education. Using statistical methods and a novel dataset that links public school and adult criminal justice records in Michigan, we compare the adult arrest rates of similar students that attended better- and worse-funded elementary schools due to Michigan’s 1994 school finance reform.

Key findings

  1. Students who attended better-funded elementary schools were taught by teachers with greater experience and earning higher salaries, were exposed to 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