Are charter schools safer than traditional public schools?

Families who live in urban areas routinely cite school safety as one of their key reasons for seeking out a charter school. What we don’t know with any certainty is whether charter schools actually are any safer than traditional schools.

Enter a new report from the American Educational Research Journal that examines school safety in charter and traditional schools. Analysts focus their study on Detroit, a city with an alarmingly high rate of crime and poverty. Tragically, in 2013, 55 percent of Detroit high schoolers reported being a victim of violence, and 87 percent reported having a relative or friend shot, murdered, or disabled by violence in the past twelve months. In response, the Detroit Public Schools established a school district police department and assigned roughly two hundred police officers and security personnel to work in the city’s traditional public schools.

Nearly half of the all students living in Detroit attend a charter school. Approximately 91 percent of them are African American and 87 percent are economically disadvantaged, compared to 86 percent and 79 percent, respectively, in the city’s traditional public schools. Analysts link student-reported data on school safety from 2014 and 2015 (how safe one feels in the bathrooms of the school, in the hallways, in classes, etc.) with school characteristics, student demographics, average commuting distance to school, parental involvement, and neighborhood characteristics, such as reported crime and the structural vacancy rates for city buildings. Schools were divided into categories based on how far students, on average, commuted to them. A “commuter” school was farther away (an average of 2.5 miles or more for elementary school); a “neighborhood” school was closer (average of 2.5 miles or less).

Data gathered through the Detroit Police Department show that traditional public schools post higher rates of both reported crime and violent crime in school than do charter schools. Initial findings also show that charter schools exhibited higher perceived safety than traditional public schools (0.68 SD higher). Yet once controls are added for student commute distance and parental involvement—which seek to control for self-selection bias (e.g., more motivated parents may be disproportionately attracted to charter schools, and willing to travel far distances)—these perceived differences mostly go away and are no longer statistically significant. The one exception is “neighborhood” charter schools (those in which most of the students live close by), which maintained their higher perceived safety even after the controls were applied. Analysts posit this may be due to school strategies such as “highly structured learning environments and strict enforcement of behavioral codes,” but that’s speculative given that the study design and controls aren’t robust enough to completely rule out selection bias. Finally, neighborhood crime and structural vacancy were unrelated to perceived school safety, perhaps because so few low-crime neighborhoods exist where schools might locate.

While researchers may care that “controls” washed out the differences in students’ “perception” of safety in many cases, the fact remains that traditional public schools had higher actual rates of both reported crime and violent crime in schools than did charter schools. So they are safer, according to police records. We don’t know why that is (perhaps because of the families choosing them), but we suspect that’s what matters most to parents.

SOURCE: Daniel Hamlin, “Are Charter Schools Safer in Deindustrialized Cities With High Rates of Crime? Testing Hypotheses in Detroit,” American Educational Research Journal (May 2017).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.