Panel Paper: School Discipline, Crime and the New Orleans School Reforms

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Comiskey (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Monica Hernandez1, Stephen Barnes2 and Douglas N. Harris1, (1)Tulane University, (2)Louisiana State University

The increasing pattern of student contact with the juvenile and adult crime system, or the “school-to-prison pipeline,” is a hotly debated topic. The education system can potentially play a critical role in preventing students falling into the school-to-prison pipeline. Unfortunately, little is known about the causal effects of education policy on the frequency of discipline incidents in schools and criminal incidents outside of school and later in life.

This paper assesses whether the post-Katrina New Orleans school reforms had unintended negative effects on school discipline and crime. The school reforms induced large gains in student performance (Harris and Larsen, 2015), but could have had unintended effects due to several reasons. First, the reforms gave schools greater autonomy to establish their own discipline policies, decreasing the capacity of the school district to ensure that student sanctions were fair and consistent. Second, the teacher workforce changed completely with the reforms. The proportion of black teachers and teachers with local roots decreased substantially, raising concerns about teachers’ abilities to make instruction culturally relevant and to relate to local community members.

We use a quasi-experimental methods approach, consisting of a mix of matching and difference-in-differences strategies. The outcome change in New Orleans after the school reforms is compared to the outcome change in a matched sample of schools located in other hurricane-affected school districts. In order to match New Orleans schools with control schools, we use pre-reform levels of the outcomes.

There are many reasons to expect, however, that the effects of the reforms on school discipline and crime varied over time. In creating an entirely new system of schooling, New Orleans leaders not only had to create new schools, but an entirely new governance structure and new institutions to recruit and develop charter school operators (e.g., New Schools for New Orleans), recruit a new teacher workforce to the city (e.g., Teach for America and TeachNOLA), and provide information to parents to help them choose schools (New Orleans Parents Guide).

The state RSD existed prior to Katrina but had just a handful of staff and had not been designed to carry out its new responsibilities. Given all the changes that occurred, it is possible that discipline policies and regulations were disorganized at the beginning, yielding to increases in discipline incidents and crime during the first years. This seems to be supported by the fact that a centralized expulsion system emerged in 2012 in response to community concerns about apparently increasing expulsion rates.

To test these dynamic effects we also estimate Granger/event study type models, also known as Generalized Difference-in-Differences. These models relax the assumption that the effect was uniform across years and estimate different coefficients for each post-treatment year.