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Creaming Kids?

Do charter schools “cream” the best students from district public schools?


Magnet schools and IB programs already actively enroll the highest performing students at the District level, but let’s ignore this hypocrisy for a moment.

First, what defines “best?” If you mean the highest achieving students, then not necessarily. If you mean the best athletes, then usually not. It really comes down to the parents. The entire issue of school choice is about parental freedom to make the best decision for the academic well-being of their children. The “best students” are not necessarily the highest achieving. Ask teachers who their favorite students are and after trying to say they don’t have favorites, they will tell you that it’s the students who try really hard and truly want to learn. They could be the least academically gifted in the class, but they are the hardest workers and have earned the respect of the teachers.

This type of student is created at home before he or she ever sets foot in the classroom. Nine times out of ten, these students have parents who are invested in their children’s education and push their children to work hard at school and respect their teachers. These are also the parents who will take advantage of a school choice option in their neighborhood, so if someone starts a charter school down the road that is a better fit for the student, that student’s parents have the right to move the student to that school.

The irony of the “creaming” accusation is that charter schools, especially in urban areas, tend to possess very challenging demographics compared to the district schools that claim to be losing the best students.Who are the students who go to charter schools? Well, in suburban areas, charter enrollments are almost identical to district schools: majority white (sometimes as high as 80%), slightly above average academic performance, and a median household income around $35,000-$40,000 or more. However, in urban areas the demographic separation between charters and district schools is stark. Inner-city charters usually have much higher Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL) rates than local district schools (although in some places, those high rates are unavoidable wherever you go). Urban charters, especially those sandwiched between the inner-city and the suburbs, also draw many more minority students than people might imagine, and we’ve seen non-white rates in charters run as high as 98% while the local district schools barely maintained or lost their minority representation. If anything, charter schools target underprivelaged students because categorical funding and federal grants are higher for these populations, which really helps pad the budgets.

At the end of the day, charters take away from district schools only those students whose parents are unhappy with their present educational options. Transferring schools is not an easy thing to do. It requires a parent to modify their schedule, wake up earlier, organize a carpool or after-school sitters, and even drive farther in many cases. If a parent is willing to go through all of this to get his or her kid into a different school than the one their district is telling them they must attend, that parent should have the freedom to do so. This isn’t about “creaming” the best students, this is about allowing the hardest working students to get the most out of their efforts. This is about allowing families to shop around for affordable educational options that offer the opportunity for development that all students deserve.