Commentary: Choice, Critics, and ‘Creaming’

Published November 1, 1999

Critics of school choice programs repeatedly predict that students will be “creamed,” as top students leave public schools to attend a school of their choice. But these critics rarely explain why any high_achieving student would want to leave a school for another in which similar success may not result. Nor can critics cite any research showing that creaming has occurred in more than 60 privately funded voucher programs and a growing number of publicly funded ones, as in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

A new Harvard University research study, issued in September, found that no such detrimental creaming occurred in the privately funded Horizon Scholarship Program in San Antonio, Texas. That program started in April 1998, when each of the more than 13,000 students in the Edgewood Independent School District was offered a grant to attend the school of his or her choice. A total of 837 students took advantage of the offer.

The voucher students were hardly an advantaged group, according to the study. Their test scores were well below the national median–at the 37th and 35th percentiles in math and reading respectively, compared to 34 and 28 for district students. The average participating family’s income was less than $16,000, with all families qualifying for the free or reduced_price federal lunch program. The participating families are 96 percent Latino; and more than half the parents do not live together. Many of the private schools selected by the program’s students found it necessary to add weekend classes to help make up deficiencies in math and reading skills.

Although researchers found that the characteristics of the voucher students were very similar to those of students who remained in the district, there were some differences between the two groups. By “cherry picking” among these characteristics for differentials that favor voucher students, critics of vouchers claim that the voucher students are “advantaged.”

For example, the study reports that “Horizon students tended to come from families in which mothers had a better education, were more likely to be employed, were less likely to be dependent on government assistance, and were more engaged in community affairs.” That sounds like an advantage, but the researchers then go on to say that “these differences were moderate, not large.”

Critics looking for differences also have to ignore a study conducted by the school district itself, issued in February, which concluded that the two groups of students were comparable, noting that “few statistically significant differences are to be found between students identified . . . as scholarship recipients and those not so identified.” This study contradicted the district superintendent’s earlier prediction where she declared, “I guarantee you that at least 80 percent [of the students who leave] will be the high_achieving students.”

Some voucher students are high-achieving. Among the Edgewood voucher recipients, 23 percent come from the district’s programs for gifted students. However, a significantly higher percentage–29 percent–of the district’s students are enrolled in these programs, which translates into a dramatically higher number of students: 3,900 of the district’s 13,490 students, compared to fewer than 200 of the 837 voucher students.

Another routine criticism of vouchers is that the private schools themselves will do the creaming by picking and choosing only those high-performing students they wish to accept. However, actual practice is somewhat different. Scholarships were available to almost every student in the district, and all students who wanted to take advantage of the voucher offer found a school to accept them. It is not known why about 100 students who received vouchers did not use them.

Significantly, when asked to identify the single most important reason for selecting their child’s school, less than 5 percent of voucher parents said “the school was the only choice available” compared to more than 21 percent of public school parents. The first_year expulsion or dismissal rate of voucher students from the private schools matched that of the Edgewood public schools–5 percent.

However, it should be noted that some of Edgewood’s public schools have a policy of picking and choosing only those students they wish to accept. One example is the Edgewood Communications and Fine Arts Academy, where admission is determined by a student’s talent, teacher recommendations, a student essay, and the student’s school attendance and disciplinary record–requirements stricter than many colleges have in place. Selective admission requirements like these exist at thousands of public schools across the nation, especially schools for the academically gifted and the artistically talented.

“Who chooses the child’s school?” voucher critics ask. The Edgewood experience shows that with vouchers, it is the parent who chooses the school for the child. With public schools, it is the public school that chooses.

David Kirkpatrick, a former public school teacher, is director of the School Choice Project at the Allegheny Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

For more information …

The September 1999 report by Paul E. Peterson, David Myers, and William G. Howell, An Evaluation of the Horizon Scholarship Program in the Edgewood Independent School District, San Antonio, Texas: The First Year, is available from The Program on Education Policy and Governance, Taubman 306, Kennedy School of Government, 79 J.F. Kennedy Street, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, phone 617/495-7976, or from the PEPG Web site at

The report is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for old documents #2184705 (part 1, 18pp.); #2184706 (part 2, 18pp.); #2184707 (datatables 1, 15pp.); and #2184708 (datatables 2, 15pp.).