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School Choice Is Improving Students' Long-Term Mental Health -- We Have the Data to Show It

30 Oct 2018

Corey A. DeAngelis and Angela Dills

The Federal Commission on School Safety, created shortly after
the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla., traveled all around the country
this year holding public listening sessions to figure out how to
reduce school violence. Several people in the meetings called for
strengthening security by mandating clear backpacks, hiring more security officers, and
arming public school teachers with guns. Others
addressed the deeper issue: student mental health.

Likely because of this information, the Department of Justice
recently started giving school districts more than $70 million in federal funding to improve
school safety. Much of this funding went toward hiring more counselors and training teachers
how to identify student mental health problems. But while these
federal grants are well-intended, there may be a better
solution.

Our just-released study uses state-level data from
49 states and nationally representative student-level data from
4,353 students to examine the effects of school choice on teen
suicides and adult mental health.

After controlling for factors such as demographics and economic
output, our state-level results generally find that the enactments
of private and public school choice laws reduce teen suicides.

After controlling for several student and family background
characteristics, including a post-baseline measure of mental
health, our student-level results suggest that private schooling
improves mental health in the long-run.

Specifically, we find that private schooling reduces the
likelihood that individuals report a mental health disorder at
around 30 years of age by 2.2 percentage points. We also find that
that private schooling reduces the number of times these
individuals report being seen for mental illnesses. Both of these
student-level effects are moderate in size, as they each translate
to around a 14 percent of a standard deviation improvement in
mental health.

But why?

Families value the overall health and safety of their
children more than anyone else. Private schools must cater to the
needs of their customers if they want to remain open. Of course,
informed families will not voluntarily send their children to
schools that harm them mentally or physically. However, monopoly
power allows residentially assigned public schools to remain open
whether or not they are safe. Put differently, residential
assignment means that public schools have little incentive to
provide the safest educational experience possible.

But that’s not all. Residential assignment and government
regulations also make it as difficult as possible for leaders to
create strong school cultures and missions.

Physical danger, bullying, disorder, drugs, and restrictions on
student liberty could all lead to various long-term mental health
issues. The preponderance of the scientific evidence on the
subject indicates that private school choice decreases the chances of each of these problems
occurring at schools.

Of course, much more research is needed on this topic. Our study
is the first evaluation linking school choice policies to mental
health issues. But our results, and basic economic theory, suggest
that school choice could address the roots of the student mental
health problem.

Corey
DeAngelis
is an education policy analyst at the Cato
Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Angela K. Dills is a
Professor of Economics and the Gimelstob-Landry Distinguished
Professor of Regional Economic Development at Western Carolina
University.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal