Commentary

Helping Kids Succeed in School Is Not “Creaming”

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
This article also appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on February 24, 2002.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, president George W. Bush’s newest friend on education, has denounced school choice as “a death sentence for public schools struggling to serve disadvantaged students, draining all good students out of poor schools.” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt and Wisconsin State Rep. Christine Sinicki have also charged that vouchers “skim” or “cream” the best students from public schools. But they ignore the facts to make their case.

Take the new book, Ten Myths about School Choice: Answering the Campaign against School Vouchers. The authors, Kaleem Caire, president and CEO of the Black Alliance for Education Options, and Howard Fuller, distinguished professor of education at Marquette University, explain that Milwaukee’s choice program “is used solely by children from low-income Milwaukee families, more than 80 percent of whom are racial and ethnic minorities.” Suburban students are not even eligible for Milwaukee’s choice program, they write. Further, random selection lotteries are required when the number of choice students exceeds available space in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida. Despite this, a number of school choice opponents have claimed, without offering evidence, that talented students have been “skimmed” or “creamed” from the system.

It is dishonest to claim that school choice creams. First of all, school choice opponents aren’t just bothered that the top students may be leaving public schools. They are bothered that any students are leaving the public schools. Bob Chase of the National Education Association and Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers sneer at private scholarships from rich businessmen helping students to attend the school of their choice. Could there be a more ideal situation than having rich white men dig into their own pockets to finance the education of low-income minority children? When Ted Forstmann and John Walton each put down $50 million of their own money to create the Children’s Scholarship Fund, the teacher union leaders denounced the fund as a “Trojan horse” for vouchers. When another rich businessman set up a choice program in Texas for Latino children, that program also was denounced as an attack on public schools.

Second, the charge about creaming is shortsighted. When critics say creaming by school choice will be a disaster, the question that isn’t answered is: Compared to what? We already have a massive informal school choice system: The public schools have already creamed and sorted the best students. Parents who can move to areas where the schools are better have already left behind poorer students. After white flight to avoid integration, the establishment of magnet schools, gifted classes and tracking, the reality is that separate (and unequal) schools have already been set up within the public school system.

Third, the charge about creaming is misguided. As education researcher Jay Greene has noted, in many if not most cases we’re talking about poor kids, probably minority kids, going to better schools that currently are economically off-limits to them. In their desire to save the public school system, instead of saving the kids, school choice opponents are making the argument that good students should be kept in lousy schools for the sake of the schools and other less motivated students. Also, it is often not the “good” students who leave. Their parents are often satisfied with how they are doing. Citing research from University of Wisconsin professor John Witte, Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, and Kim Metcalf of the Indiana University School of Education, Caire and Fuller point out that it is failing students whose parents are desperate to find alternatives who are flocking to school choice programs.

Finally, the campaign against creaming has even led defenders of the public school monopoly to attack the children they supposedly serve. In Chicago, students who attend schools outside of their neighborhoods are derided as “defectors.” But we don’t call people defectors if they shop in other neighborhoods for food, medicine, or housing. Parents who enroll their children into private schools supposedly are turning their backs on public schools. But is there anyone who would criticize parents for trying to find the best doctor for their children? Schools willing to accept low-income children trying to escape from a failing school are said to be engaging in creaming. And when they don’t accept those students, they allegedly are elitist or racist.

We have truly reached a low point in political dialogue when the act of helping a child out of a lousy school is denounced as “creaming” and parents are blamed for trying to save their children from peers not interested in education. Instead of trying to keep students in schools not serving them well, we need freedom of choice in education so that educational decisions can be made based on achievement and motivation, not geography or economic status.

Casey Lartigue Jr. is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.