School choice and adolescent mental health are closely linked, a first-of-its-kind study finds.
The study, published online in the School Effectiveness and School Improvement journal on December 3, found the suicide rate in the 15- to 19-year-old age bracket dropped by 10 percent in states that have adopted charter school laws and that private schools can reduce mental health issues during the adult years. Authors Corey A. DeAngelis and Angela K. Dills also looked at the effects of state vouchers for private schooling but found no significant effect on suicide rates.
This trend is occurring against a backdrop of skyrocketing suicide rates for that age group. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that, between 2007 and 2015, 15- to 19-year-old female suicides doubled, and male suicides increased by 30 percent. The pandemic lockdowns may be making suicide rates worse. Based on a survey conducted over the summer, the CDC reported 10.7 adults aged 18-24 reported to have contemplated suicide in the past 30 days.
How School Choice Helps
It’s unclear exactly what factors could have impacted the correlation between charter school programs and decreased suicide rates.
“There are a variety of potential mechanisms,” Dills, an economist at Western Carolina University, told Health Care News. “School choice allows families to find a school that fits their child’s needs better, providing a better match between students and schools.”
There may also be some impact from families withdrawing children from standard government schools to avoid bullying, Dills says. A survey from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that safety is a top priority for parents in making educational decisions, and bullying would fall into that safety category.
Giving teens control may also be a factor, Dills says.
“One possible mechanism is that school choice acts as a release valve—students can more easily leave bad schooling situations, [which would improve] mental health,” Dills said.
Market dynamics could also be at play and have some spill-over effect on conventional schools. Interestingly, the impact on suicides occurred statewide, not just for students enrolled in private or charter schools.
“Competitive effects from school choice improve school climate in all schools,” Dills said. Public schools could be “increasing the focus on mental-health improving policies.”
Charter schools and private schools also have more flexibility in administration, curriculum, discipline, and customization. When focusing on attracting students, the schools need to be more accountable for teacher performance, Dills says.
“Schools of choice (charter schools, private schools) have more leeway to consider curricula and/or school climate choices that focus on socio-emotional skills and improving interactions among the students,” Dills said.
While the study does not prove causal effects of school choice on adolescent suicides, other explanations for the declines are “unlikely,” Dills says. For example, states may adopt charter school laws in response to declining suicides.
Pandemic Redefining Schools
Because children and teens spend so much time in school, it is hard to separate public educational policies from overall child development, including physical health. Schools also assist with a child’s physical well-being. Children have assured meals in school through federal lunch programs, many schools have mandatory physical fitness and education programs, and schools can also be a watchdog for childhood neglect and abuse.
The pandemic lockdowns have rattled the educational landscape. School closures around the nation have forced children into at-home, online classrooms or “pandemic pods” that limit physical contact among students. Surveys indicate that parental opinion of their local schools has declined during the lockdowns.
Lockdowns have changed public opinion on school choice, points out study co-author DeAngelis, the director of School Choice at Reason Foundation an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute.
“A nationwide survey from Real Clear Opinion Research found that support for school choice has surged by 10 percentage points since April—from 67 percent to 77 percent,” DeAngelis stated in a release.
“Another national survey from EdChoice similarly found that support for all types of school choice jumped since last year, with 81 percent of the general public now supporting education savings accounts,” stated DeAngelis.
One difference between in-person schooling and virtual schooling has been parental scrutiny of school performance. That phenomenon has even led some schools to take measures to prevent parents from observing their children’s virtual classes.
“Virtual schooling has provided many parents with more information about their children’s schools’ curriculum and teachers,” Dills said. “Many families have used the disruption as an opportunity to try alternate forms of schooling.”
Those alternatives include homeschooling, virtual private schools, and education pods.
“For some families, learning about their options and experiencing them will lead to permanent changes in schooling choices,” Dills said.
“Families have been getting a bad deal when it comes to K-12 education for far too long and it’s clearer now more than ever,” DeAngelis said. “Families are realizing that there isn’t any good reason to fund institutions when we can fund students directly instead.”
Harry Painter (firstname.lastname@example.org,@TheHarryPainter) writes from Brooklyn, New York.
Corey A. DeAngelis, Angela K. Dills, “The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health,” School Effectiveness and School Improvement, December 3, 2020: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09243453.2020.1846569