Catholic School Closures and Chicago Crime Rates

Author(s): Margaret F. Brinig, Nicole Stelle Garnett

Source: Brinig, Margaret F., and Nicole Stelle Garnett. 2012. “Catholic Schools and Broken Windows.” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. 9(2): 347–367.


What effects do schools have on their neighborhoods beyond the education of local children?  Brinig and Garnett demonstrated in an article published in 2010 in the Notre Dame Law Review that the presence of Catholic schools in a community raised neighborhood cohesion and lowered perceived rates of social disorder.  Given this finding, and drawing on “broken windows theory” (Wilson and Kelling 1982), which explains that unchecked social disorder can encourage higher criminal activity in a neighborhood, Brinig and Garnett investigate how Catholic school closures affects communities.

Brining and Garnett focused their investigation on Chicago neighborhoods.  They obtained crime data from Chicago Police Department records, and measured social disorder utilizing data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago, from which they obtained information about residents’ perception of neighborhood disorder.  The authors analyzed this data utilizing latent variable analysis, a specialized structural equation modeling technique. 

Brining and Garnett analyzed data from the years 1999 to 2005, a period during which crime rates in Chicago fell. The authors found that neighborhoods in which Catholic schools remained open had a more severe drop in crime than did those neighborhoods in which Catholic schools closed, suggesting that Catholic schools provide a protective effect against crime and social unrest in communities.  They suggest that such findings demonstrate that the use of tax credits, vouchers, and other forms of public assistance that allow families to access tax dollars to enroll in Catholic schools has a somewhat unintended and significant outcome on community safety and stability beyond simply allowing families a greater range of educational choices.

Although this study demonstrates the causal link between Catholic schools, social disorder, and crime, it also shows the need to further understand how these institutions generate positive outcomes for the communities they are embedded within.  As the authors state, “Catholic schools appear to be one of the informal social institutions capable of generating the social networks needed to form social capital and collective efficacy in a neighborhood” (365).  However, they also note that the mechanisms through which social capital and efficacy are produced is not yet understood, particularly given their later finding (Garnett and Brinig 2014) that charter schools that open in place of closed Catholic schools do not preserve the protective effect.  As the number of Catholic schools continues to decline nationally, it is ever more crucial to investigate how their presence, as well as their absence, impacts lived experiences of individuals at the community level.

Brinig, Margaret F., and Nicole Stelle Garnett. 2010. “Catholic Schools, Urban Neighborhoods, and Education Reform.” Notre Dame Law Review. 85(3): 887-936.

Brinig, Margaret F. and Nicole Stelle Garnett.  2014.  Lost Classroom, Lost Community:  Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling.  1982.  “Broken Windows:  The Police and Neighborhood Safety.”  The Atlantic, accessed from

Keywords: Community Cohesion, Social Capital, Latent Variable Analysis

Sector: Catholic

Outcomes: Civil and Political,  School Choice

Date Posted: 2016-04-11