Education , Criminal Justice

Greg Forster, Ph.D. | February 26, 2021

School choice: The best criminal justice reform

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

We hear a lot about the “school-to-prison pipeline.” School choice is literally the only policy with a proven track record of doing something about it. It’s time for criminal-justice reformers to put up or shut up.

How would you like to stop thousands of vulnerable kids from becoming criminals? And do it by enacting a policy that’s proven to work, and has consistent 65%-70% public support, bringing together Americans of all colors and creeds? The best criminal-justice reform is to prevent kids from getting on the wrong side of the law in the first place, and the way to do that is hiding in plain sight: school choice.

“Criminal justice reform” is a phrase that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, I’m strongly in favor of the right kind of criminal justice reform, and strongly against the wrong kind. The sticking point is that Americans mostly don’t agree on which reform policies are the right ones.

In a highly polarized country, political movements have to make a choice. The organizations that want to raise a lot of money without accomplishing anything will focus on inflaming divisions, keeping us stuck in endless 50/50 trench warfare so we’ll keep sending them checks to carry on the fight. The organizations that want to get something done will look for policy opportunities that allow them to bring 65% or 75% of the country together around doing the right thing.

It’s not hard to find the fundraisers in criminal justice reform. On the left, they’re the ones who shout “defund the police!” On the right, they’re the ones who shout “when looting starts, shooting starts!” And both sides then evade responsibility by claiming that they don’t literally mean what they say—a double game that allows them to raise money by appealing to base, vicious sentiments and then wash their hands of the consequences.

But there are criminal-justice reform policies that attract broad consensus. And there are plenty more that could attract broad consensus with the right kind of campaign. My personal favorites are ending the flagrantly unjust judge-made rule called qualified immunity, which makes it effectively impossible to punish police officers who break the law, and ending the legalized theft that is civil asset forfeiture. I also think body cameras for police, in spite of the downsides, are worth it. And I’d like to see states clean up their public reporting of justice-related data, which generally are as clear as mud. Better pay for officers should also be on the table—if we want better policing, we should put our money where our mouths are.

These policies take seriously the fact that we give police a lot of power, and power does tend to corrupt. Everyone needs to do their work within some kind of effective accountability structure. But these approaches also empower the majority of police who are clean to do their jobs better.

Unfortunately, clearing a path to most of the really constructive reforms will require us to rein in the power of police unions. It can be done, if we have the will, and it should be done—government employees shouldn’t be unionized in the first place, since there’s no market discipline to counterbalance the unions’ unlimited pursuit of their own selfish interests, and it’s especially wrong for them to unionize against public safety. But there’s no denying that it would be a tough fight, which is why so far we generally haven’t bothered to try it.

The good news is that there’s a criminal-justice reform we can enact without having to fight the police unions: expand school choice. Better academic outcomes are not the only proven benefit from policies that allow parents to direct their children’s educational funding to the school of their choice.

Six rigorous empirical studies have found that school choice policies reduce crime, and no studies find the opposite. Some of them study charter schools, which don’t empower parents as much as private-school choice does, but the principle is the same. Two studies of the private-school voucher program in Milwaukee, not far from where I live, found that graduates of the program were less likely to be convicted of crimes in their twenties. And don’t say that’s because the program attracts the less vulnerable students—in Milwaukee, as in most cities, school choice serves mostly poor and minority students. In any event, the studies compared matched student populations with similar backgrounds.

It’s not hard to see why school choice is proven to reduce crime. Putting parents back in charge of education is the key to educating children as if they were human beings, not economic widgets or political footballs. Education is preparing a whole person for a whole life—that’s just what the word means. Only parents can rightly control the process of preparing a whole person for a whole life, because childrearing is a parental function. Schools can carry out that function, but they can only do it rightly if they answer to the people who are supposed to be in charge of it.

When parents aren’t in charge, schools can’t treat students as human beings. The monopoly system turns schools into industrialized machines. That’s not because the teachers and principals are bad. It’s just the way the system has to work as long as it’s a government monopoly, no matter how well-meaning the people inside that system might be.

Other reforms seeking to help kids in failing schools always founder on the rocky shoals of the government school monopoly’s resistance to reform. All monopolies resist reform. They’re monopolies, that’s what monopolies do. Break the monopoly, and schools suddenly remember that they exist to serve students, not politicians and special interests.

Unlike police unions, the unions representing education special interests have been losing power for a decade. That’s partly because they’ve lost a long series of public relations battles—everyone now knows that they don’t speak for education, and they don’t even speak for their own members. They just want to grab money, and they don’t care about destroying children’s lives to do it. And it’s partly because they’ve lost a long series of public policy battles, with private school choice and new restrictions on unjust union exploitation of their own members having been enacted in most states. We now have private-school choice programs in 30 states—a supermajority.

We hear a lot about the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Well, school choice is literally the only policy with a proven track record of doing something about that problem. It’s time to put up or shut up.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Loading Next