School Choice Could Help Alleviate Violence
by Alexander Volokh
Wall Street Journal, April 29, 1999
In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., shootings, everyone is offering
opinions on how to prevent school violence. "Obviously, we have to address
the root causes and set up a violence-prevention program," some say.
Others claim, "We should install metal detectors." Or: "We need uniforms,
or more suspensions, or paddling, or midnight basketball."
Unfortunately, making schools safe is a tricky question, with answers
varying dramatically from school to school. Everyday violence is hard
enough; no one has a clue on random school shootings. Moreover, the
public-school system as we know it is unlikely to find or successfully
implement the proper policy.
Many who remember a simpler, safer world yearn for a return to good
old-fashioned discipline and punishment. But even if discipline is
effective, the civil-liberties revolution has been bad news for
disciplinarians. Since government-run schools have to provide services
fairly and guard against abuses of power, they have a hard time suspending
or expelling unruly students. Corporal punishment and public embarrassment
are subject to legal limits, and even policies tying grades to behavior
have been subjected to court challenges. Locker searches are limited on
civil-liberties grounds. The ACLU opposes dress codes, which a spokeswoman
characterizes as "a desperate reaction on the part of school officials
frustrated with the lack of solutions to their problems." Even hair-length
regulations might be challenged in court.
Not all potential lawsuits are winners, but often the threat of a lawsuit
is enough to get a school to back down, recognizing that it would rather
spend its time and money teaching.
What about high-tech gizmos? Metal detectors are already used in many
inner-city schools, and their effectiveness is unclear. Walk-through
"archway" detectors are expensive, while cheaper hand-held "wands" are
less effective. Lost time is also a cost. In New York, since it takes
hours to screen all students, many inner-city schools only check one
student in nine, maybe one in five at less-crowded times. Even with
partial scanning, students sometimes come to class half an hour late.
Video cameras, guards and other security measures have similar problems --
monitoring only gets you so far until the costs become prohibitive. To get
as much security as one would like, says a Dallas school-district
official, "you're talking megabucks."
Unwilling or unable to implement discipline codes or enforce punitive
measures, and dissatisfied with the results or costs of the high-tech
approach, many schools have turned to "softer" violence-prevention
programs -- anger management, conflict resolution, and gang prevention.
Academic educators love these, but most programs are never seriously
evaluated, and almost none of the evaluations would pass muster with a
competent statistician. There is little evidence that gang-prevention
programs have any effect; some programs even show negative effects. Why do
schools keep adopting these programs without any evidence that they work?
Perhaps because from a public-school administrator's point of view, there
is no significant loss in attendance or funding from a program that
In short, the problem with rushing to adopt uniforms or metal detectors or
anger-management programs is that there is no silver-bullet program to end
school violence. This should be obvious, but it's often forgotten. If
schools were alike, with similar student bodies, similar communities and
similar populations of outcasts and gangsters, we could mandate similar
programs everywhere. If behavioral psychology were an exact science, the
"experts" could design the ideal plan for each school. But in the messy
world, the best we can do is have a school system where we're reasonably
satisfied that promising policies will be adopted and failed ones won't.
It's no coincidence that school violence is mostly a problem of public
schools. Private-school administrators live in a different world -- having
a reputation for violence makes them lose students. Public schools often
have captive clienteles, especially in inner cities, and they know it.
Just as important, private schools also have more freedom to experiment.
In private schools, disciplinary policies aren't civil-liberties issues.
Uniforms, locker searches, suspension, grade reduction -- all of these
time-honored policies are harder for public schools to implement. Private
schools get to have private rules. And freedom also means freedom to carry
out grander experiments that would be unheard of in the public sector.
Some think that all-girls' schools are safer for girls, chiefly because
they have no boys[. . . .]
Whether the government can run same-sex schools is controversial [. . .]
[b]ut the private sector can [. . .]
and existing schools of
these types clearly do well by the parents who send their children
And of course, the government can't teach -- gasp! -- religious values.
Catholic schools didn't achieve their remarkably violence-free record by
only accepting rich white kids or by expelling troublemakers. In the inner
city, Catholic and public schools are demographically similar, and
Catholic-school expulsion rates are quite low. They rely on contact with
parents, assertive discipline and strong moral values.
Making schools safer isn't about finding a program that works in all
cases; it's about setting up a system that allows and encourages schools
to discover what works in their case. This means instituting school
choice, both among public schools and between public and private schools,
whether secular or religious; encouraging charter schools; decentralizing
public-school management and tying rewards to results instead of providing
more money to schools that fail.
Freedom and accountability -- the ability to innovate, combined with
competitive forces that tend to squelch innovations that don't work and
encourage those that do -- aren't glamorous, nor will they satisfy the
crusading reformer looking for the One Best Way to prevent recurrences of
Columbine. But compared with everything else, they seem like the best
Mr. Volokh is an adjunct scholar with the Reason Public Policy Institute.
1 Where text is omitted here, the original article incorrectly claimed that
same-race private schools could be legal under current law.
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