I recently wrote an article that referred to charter schools that succeed by excluding students with disabilities, English learners, and others unlikely to get high scores. The editor questioned if this claim was accurate. I turned to several expert researchers to ask their view, and they all agreed with my assertion. David Berliner of Arizona State University—one of the nation’s pre-eminent researchers and statisticians—had data to back it up, and I invited him to write an essay addressing this issue.

He wrote:

Culling, Creaming, Skimming, Thinning: Things We Do to Herds and School Children

To cull is to select things you intend to reject, often in reference to a group of animals. An outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease can cause authorities to order a cull of farm pigs. An outbreak of low-test scores or a meeting with undesirable parents can promote the culling of charter students. To cream is to remove something choice from an aggregate, such as selecting the best and the brightest appearing students and families for acceptance to a charter or private school.

Diane Ravitch was recently criticized for writing that charter schools, supported by public tax money, engage in skimming and creaming students and families. Ravitch, however is right! Public charter schools, and private schools that accept public monies through vouchers, admit only certain students, often those predicted most likely to succeed and whose parents are “acceptable.” And, if these schools choose “wrong,” they cull the herd later. Between selective admissions and culling the student body, the data ordinarily used to describe a school’s accomplishments will make charter and voucher schools look quite good.

Let me illustrate with data collected by my wife, Dr. Ursula Casanova, by a former student (Assistant Professor Amanda Potterton, of the University of Kentucky), and from the ACLU of Arizona.

Dr. Casanova wrote in the Washington Post about the Basis (charter) school in Scottsdale, Arizona, enrolling students in grades 5-12. Based on its test scores that year, it was named the top high school in Arizona. But the year it was so honored, Casanova found enrollments from 5th to 8th grade to be 152, 138, 110, and 94. Then, the high school enrollments, in grades 9-11, were 42, 30, and 23. Finally, the 12th grade graduating class had 8 students! With no shame whatsoever the Basis school was able to claim they graduated 100% of their seniors and that all were accepted at college!

The Basis school of Tucson, part of the same chain of about a dozen charter schools, mostly in Arizona, presented data with a similar pattern. In the year for which Casanova reported, the school started out with 127 students in the fifth grade. But they had only 100 students in eighth grade, 69 in the 9th grade, 45 in 10th grade, and 27 in 11th grade. At the end of 12th grade they had only 24 seniors left at graduation. The graduating class was only 35% of the ninth-grade cohort, and they were less than 20% of that fifth -grade cohort. Culling the herd seems to describe school policy.

Potterton wrote in Teachers College Record about four highly rated charter schools in Arizona, the two Basis schools reported on above, and two other schools from the Great Hearts Academy chain, which run more than 20 schools in the Phoenix area.

In the year of her study she found that the average rate for free and reduced lunch in Arizona schools was 35%. The average for free and reduced lunch in these the four charter schools? 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%. Highly selective admissions and culling work quite well. That same year the state average for English language learners in our schools was 7.5%. The English language learners in these four schools? 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%. The percent of students with IEPs in the state was about 12%. But the percent of such students in these four schools was between, .6% and 3.5%.

Arizona is not unique. In a recent year the federal government reported in the Common Core of data that in 2014 the Boston public schools graduated 85% of its grade 9 students. But the “City on A Hill” Charter school graduated 46% of its grade 9 class; while the “Boston Preparatory Academy,” “Boston Collegiate Charter,” and “Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter” each graduated about 60% of its 9th grade class. Culling in charters seems to be widespread.

Another example comes from Philadelphia’s Boys Latin Charter, as analyzed by Jersey Jazzman in his column of July 28th, 2017. Boys Latin proudly boasted that 98% of its students were accepted into college. But in the years 2011-2015 the school graduated about 60% of its 9th grade class, culling approximately 40% of its student body, and thus allowing the school to make a claim that 98% of its students are accepted to college.

Charter schools cull families with special needs too. Arizona’s ACLU in 2017 noted that state law forbade charter schools from limiting the number of special education students they accept. But “The Rising School” in Tucson advertised blatantly that the school’s special education and resources department “is currently full.… Thus, any student with an IEP will be put on our waiting list.” Also in apparent defiance of the law, “AmeriSchools Academy” (in Phoenix, Tucson, and Yuma) blatantly noted that “Special Education placements are limited to a capacity of ten (10) students for each school site. Students in excess of this number are to be wait listed with provisional registration.”

Further, by state law, Arizona’s charter schools may not require students or their parents to complete pre-enrollment activities, such as essays, interviews or school tours. Nor can charter schools use students’ performance on interviews or essays, or the student’s decision not to complete requested pre-enrollment activities, to determine which students to accept. But the ACLU found that at the “Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy” students must write a one-page essay as part of their enrollment application. As part of the enrollment process at the “Satori Charter School” in Tucson, parents and students must meet with a school administrator. These are all excellent, though illegal ways to cull potentially undesirable families.

State law also directs charter schools not to require parental involvement as a condition of admission. And furthermore, charter schools must not pressure parents into donating money. As in many states, the Arizona Constitution guarantees students the right to a free public education, and charter schools are supposed to be public schools. Yet the same Great Hearts Academy charter schools reported on above asked each family to contribute $1,500 per student per year. Parents were also encouraged to donate anywhere from $200 to $2,000 to the school. The “Mission Montessori Academy” of Scottsdale asked parents to volunteer 15 hours every year per child enrolled, or make a contribution of $150 to the school in lieu of volunteer hours. The “Montessori Day Public School” chain noted that “All parents are expected to contribute 40 hours of volunteer time per family, per year.” The “Freedom Academy” in Phoenix and Scottsdale required a non-refundable $300 “Extracurricular Arts Fee,” due at enrollment. The “San Tan Charter School (in Gilbert, AZ)” required parents to provide a credit card the school can keep on file to pay several fees, including a $250 technology rental fee for grades 9-12. These are all great ways to cull families, illegality be damned!!

In many states, private schools receive public monies through vouchers, and still discriminate against certain children and families, culling them as needed! One of the most blatant examples I know of is the Fayetteville Christian School in North Carolina, a recipient, in a recent school year, of $495,966 of public money. But it is not open to the public! It says, up front, that it doesn’t want Jews, Muslims, Hindu’s and many others. At this school a student, and at least one parent, have to have taken Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or they cannot be admitted. They also cannot engage in sexual promiscuity, illicit drug use and homosexuality—or anything else that scripture defines as deviate or perverted. Any report of such activities by parents or the students is grounds for expulsion. This is culling of the student body by religion and life style, in a school receiving about a half million dollars of public funds per year!

Many of the schools I mentioned above, are considered great public and/or great private schools. Creaming and culling really do pay off in terms of a school’s reputation, as long as the schools’ policies are not examined too closely. But Dr. Casanova asked an excellent question of our citizenry when she reported on the graduation rates of various charters and private schools, and compared them to the reports from San Luis High School, in San Luis, AZ, on the Mexican border, part of the Yuma, Arizona school system. Data from different sources informs us that in recent years this public high school serves almost 3,000 students a year, almost 100% of whom are Hispanic, half of whom are limited English proficient, and most are classified as economically disadvantaged. But this public high school manages to graduate over 80 percent of their freshman class, and almost 90 percent of its senior class. They also do this with a teacher/pupil ratio well in excess of the U.S. average, and working with Arizona’s per pupil school funding formula, which is among the lowest in the nation. Why isn’t San Luis High School, and others like it, compared to the culling and creaming charters and voucher schools, considered among our great American high schools?

So many of our public schools deserve our gratitude for doing such a good job educating all our citizenry, many under difficult conditions. The Darwinian approach, to push the weakest students out of school, to cull the herd, should not be tolerated in a democracy, and therefore is absolutely inappropriate behavior for a school receiving public money. But Darwinism really is the philosophy guiding some of the highest rated charters. A respondent to a blog by my colleague Gene Glass, where he too criticized the culling and creaming practices of charters, stated the following: “Basis schools does not engage in any form of thinning across any grade. Students do drop out because they are not fit to thrive in the difficult curriculum ….”

Let’s think about what “not fit to thrive” might look like as a guiding philosophy for our public schools. We could do away with special education, bilingual education, counseling and guidance, transportation, free and reduced breakfasts and lunches, school nurses, etc. The Darwinian approach to schooling is not merely undemocratic,….. it is evil! If it were me, I wouldn’t give another public dollar to any charter or voucher school that culls, skims, or creams. They are all patently undemocratic.

David C. Berliner
Regents’ Professor Emeritus
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College
Arizona State University