This paper asks whether improving the quality of public schools can be an effective long-run crime-prevention strategy in the U.S. Specifically, we examine the effect of school quality improvements early in children's lives on the likelihood that they are arrested as adults. We exploit quasi-experimental variation in school quality due to increases in public school funding, leveraging two natural experiments in Michigan and a novel administrative dataset linking the universe of Michigan public school students to adult criminal justice records. The first research design exploits variation in operating expenditures due to Michigan's 1994 school finance reform, Proposal A. The second design exploits variation in capital spending by leveraging close school district capital bond elections in a regression discontinuity framework. In both cases, we find that students exposed to additional funding during elementary school were substantially less likely to be arrested in adulthood. We show that the Marginal Value of Public Funds of improving school quality (via increases in funding) is greater than one, even when considering only the crime-reducing benefits.
The authors are grateful to the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, as this research was made possible in part by support from training grants R305B170015 and R305B150012, as well as by an Early Career Scholars Grant at Policy Impacts. This research used data structured and maintained by the MERI-Michigan Education Data Center (MEDC). MEDC data are modified for analysis purposes using rules governed by MEDC and are not identical to those data collected and maintained by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and/or Michigan's Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI). Finally, this working paper was originally published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Working papers circulated by the Education Policy Initiative (EPI) and NBER are for discussion and comment purposes and have not been peer-reviewed. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of EPI, NBER, or any other sponsoring entity.