Think of them as ‘make better choices’ schools

Reducing Milwaukeeans’ suffering from crime starts young, and research suggests a means

By Patrick McIlheran

August 18, 2022 — Between the time these words are written and your reading them, the odds are better than even that someone will be murdered in Milwaukee. The year is a bit over 5,500 hours old. With 149 homicides, that means about every 36 hours, someone unjustly takes a life that should have mattered more.

That’s not to mention rapes, at more than one a day, or car theft, running about one an hour. It’s a clock of ruined lives, including those of the criminals, who likely will be caught eventually, especially if they post viral videos inspiring youths in other cities to steal cars, as a Milwaukee gang did. They deserve punishment, these killers, rapists and thieves, for the choices they made, but how much better for everyone if they made better choices.

How? It isn’t complicated. Hard, but not complicated. As Marilyn Anderson Rhames, who spent 14 years teaching in the Chicago Public Schools puts it, there aren’t any children fated to be bad, but children need to be taught what is right. “They need input, they need adults to lead them in the right direction,” she said.

Then she gets to the hard part: “Faith offers that. It has for generations. And when it’s not there, there is a lack, and there is opportunity for other influences, negative influences, to come in that vacuum and fill it.”

Rhames wasn’t preaching. She was discussing research she did at the University of Arkansas. She and Patrick Wolf looked at 1,100 young people, some who went to Milwaukee Public Schools, others who went to schools in Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program. About 9 out of 10 Milwaukee private “voucher” schools are religious or following a religious tradition, so Rhames and Wolf looked to see whether that religious element made a difference when the students were older.

It did.

Earlier research showed that 25- to 28-year-olds who had been in a Milwaukee private school were now 53% less likely to have a drug conviction, 86% less likely to have been convicted of damaging property, and 38% less likely to have been in a paternity suit. To be clear, the great majority were law-abiding, as nearly all Milwaukeeans are. But those who went to choice schools were even more so.

Researchers in 2006 had asked the then-students’ parents their religious affiliation and frequency of attending worship services. Rhames and Wolf used that in finding that MPS students from “high-religiosity” families did better as young adults — less crime, less paternity trouble — than those from “low-religiosity” families.

But kids from low-religiosity families who went to choice schools had markedly less trouble than low-religiosity students in MPS. The study doesn’t say why, finding only a connection, not causation, but it suggests that the explicitly religion nature of most choice schools “may have the most profound effect on the unchurched student population,” Rhames said in a report in Diggings, the Badger Institute magazine.

It isn’t that schools are turning unattached families into church- or shul- or mosque-going believers. The study didn’t find that. But it suggests that character-forming took place.

It is a kind of formation that cannot be offered by MPS and other schools ostensibly constrained by the Establishment Clause. Rhames understands that. It is why she thinks further research into what religious schools can offer is important, she said on a recent episode of Free Exchange, the Badger Institute’s podcast.

“We can’t legislate people to take their kids to church,” she said. “But we can certainly disseminate this information and let them know that we’re seeing these patterns. And perhaps there’s something to what we think of as common knowledge or conventional wisdom that you build character, you build fortitude, inner strength by having a faith, by seeing the world as being run by someone bigger than you — like you’re not the boss; there are rules to this game we call life — and instilling that into children at an early age, hopefully at home, but if not, then at school.”

Parents in Milwaukee and across Wisconsin have choices. Those affect the choices their children will make, and all the people their children will meet. It puts lie to any idea that we are mere puppets pushed around by forces we cannot control. “These parents had an opportunity through the choice program to put their child in a different environment,” said Rhames, “and it seems that it paid off in the long run.”

Good. Let’s encourage parents who seek such choices and make more room for educators who want to offer them.

Because the default isn’t working, certainly not when we learn — as reported by the Badger Institute’s Mark Lisheron — that Milwaukee Public Schools’ high schools summoned police an average of 7.2 times each school day last year for assaults, rapes, gunfire and other woe.   

Activists years ago persuaded MPS’ board to expel police from proactively interacting with children, and cops were told not even to watch the grounds. Activists thought cops, not bad choices, were the problem, and didn’t want kids arrested.

Most parents aim higher: They want their kids to live upright and happy lives. We should help them accomplish that

Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

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