(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)
Attending a private religious school lowers the likelihood that students will use cocaine, have sex or get arrested. That, according to a new study from David Figlio and Jens Ludwig.
They find that decreased sexual activity is found primarily among females, accompanied by a decreased likelihood of “fecundity.” Decreased cocaine use and arrests were found primarily among boys, who were also less likely to smoke tobacco.
Overall, private schools had little effect on adolescent drinking and marijuana use. This might be due to the fact that while some students were led to avoid drugs and alcohol altogether, students who otherwise would have used hard drugs instead just smoked pot and drank booze – in my view.
Figlio and Ludwig’s data comes from the late 1980s and early 1990s. They find that the effects of private school were focused primarily in two-parent households. They also find that the effects were concentrated in the suburbs, though the definition of suburb in their dataset is overly broad, which unnaturally decreases the accuracy of their estimates in urban areas.
Studies of private schools are typically fraught with selection problems: students who select into private schools might have selected, in the case at hand, to avoid hard drugs and have less sex no matter where they attended school. Figlio and Ludwig eliminate this bias from their study by using a clever instrumental variables model in which transportation infrastructure differences between cities are shown to have an effect on the likelihood that parents will send their children to private religious schools.
Figlio and Ludwig point to character education in religious private schools. I can’t think of a better explanation.
Religious private schools are often organized with family life in mind. They seek to help families raise children who will be good parents and good citizens; their definitions of good parenting and citizenship are, of course, colored by their varying religious beliefs. All religions are not the same. But most religious schools share the overlapping belief that students should abstain from sex and should not use drugs. Figlio and Ludwig show that they’re doing a better job than public schools and non-religious private schools at achieving those goals; is this because religious schools have more rigorous abstinence and drug resistance programs than public schools? I doubt it. Private religious schools largely were established with a private community purpose in mind – which is very different from a public policy purpose. They are able to make broader pleas to their communities.
Perhaps most importantly, private religious schools are less afraid to discuss the consequences of bad, selfish behavior. They encourage kids to think over the long-term, the very long-term.