Voucher Lessons from Sweden

Published March 1, 2003

School choice has come to Sweden in a big way over the past 10 years, confounding widespread perceptions of the Swedes as statists and providing inspiration for supporters of market-based education reform in the U.S.

Sweden has the highest rate of taxation in the West and the highest ratio of public spending to GNP of the industrialized nations. For all but nine years during the postwar era, the Social Democrats have ruled this Scandinavian country.

Yet, as a result of a top-to-bottom education reform launched in 1991-92, virtually anyone can start a school in Sweden and receive public funding. Families are free to choose whatever state-subsidized school they prefer for their children, including those run by churches.

After 10 years, what lessons can be learned from Swedish education reform?

School Choice Works

“The main lesson to be learned from the Swedish reforms is that school choice works,” concluded Swedish economists and researchers Mikael Sandström and Fredrik Bergström in a January 2003 study for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. “Sweden has left behind an almost completely centralized system, with tight national control of schooling and a minuscule role for non-governmental institutions.”

In short, Sweden has done a 180-degree turn in education over the past decade, in the process generating a number of positive results. Although the U.S. is far behind Sweden and much of Western Europe in school choice–ironically so, given the vibrancy of the American market economy–the researchers believe there are a number of lessons the U.S. can take from Sweden.

Among the positive outcomes they found from Sweden’s shift to free educational choice:

  • The number of independent schools has increased fivefold. Under Swedish law, they now must be funded equally with the municipal schools–as Swedish public schools are known–once they have received approval to operate.
  • Attendance in independent schools has quadrupled.
  • Student performance in Sweden’s government-run schools has increased, the apparent result of competition from a much-increased supply of schools.
  • Most of the independent schools are run by for-profit educational management companies, with no negative effect on the quality of education.
  • Free choice under a voucher-style approach has not led to advantages for the elite rich. In fact, poorer Swedes choose independent schools at higher rates than do affluent families.
  • While there are differences of opinion within the teaching profession, the Swedish teacher unions have not opposed school choice. Surveys show teachers tend to prefer working in the independent schools because they find the climate for teaching better there.

Were full choice to become the norm in the U.S., perhaps American teachers would begin to wonder why their unions have demonized vouchers. The study notes that when teachers can choose not only among several municipal schools but also many independent schools, they benefit by being able to market their skills and choose a school that best fits their interests.

Contrast to Cleveland

Another possible lesson for America, Sandström and Bergström reported, is that extensive choice may not lead to a preponderance of religious schools of choice, as has happened in places with limited voucher experiments, such as Cleveland, Ohio.

Before the choice plan was instituted in Sweden, it was mainly parents with strong religious convictions who chose the private alternative, a decision the religious schools often aided by accepting voluntary work or donations to reduce the cost of attending. However, with full choice under a fully funded voucher system, “school becomes a more normal market, where different schools compete through the quality of education by offering special subjects or focusing on children with special needs,” the Swedish team maintained.

“Religious schools will certainly continue to exist, but the market to which they appeal is limited,” they asserted.

In contrast to the debate in the U.S. over separation of church and state, “the right of churches to run schools in Europe has often been regarded as a way to uphold freedom of religion,” explained Sandström and Bergström.

Two Steps to School Reform

Before reform was launched in Sweden, teachers were employees of the national government, which paid their salaries. Municipal governments ran schools according to national rules and regulations.

The first step in the reform process came in 1991, when legislation transferred responsibility for education from the national government to the localities. Teachers became municipal employees. The omnipotent National Board of Education was scuttled and replaced by the National Agency for Education, charged with setting goals for the school system rather than directing how the goals will be met.

The second step came soon thereafter, when a non-socialist government won election and introduced legislation giving independent schools the right to receive funding from the municipalities on an equal basis with the municipal schools. The National Agency for Education approves all schools that meet specified requirements, such as refraining from discriminatory admissions, charging no fees, and operating in harmony with the national curriculum.

In practice, the National Agency rejects few applications to start schools. For instance, in the year 2000, the Agency approved 125 applications for primary schools and rejected only 13. Rejections mainly were for incomplete applications or lack of evidence the applicants could sustain a school.

“Apart from the Netherlands,” the researchers noted, “establishing an independent school is probably easier in Sweden than in any other country.”

When the Social Democrats returned to power in 1994, the government did not act to reverse the reforms. Of the seven parties in Parliament, Bergström and Sandström wrote, only the former Communists in the “Left Party,” which receives only about 10 percent of the popular vote, flatly oppose parental choice and the right of independent schools to public funding.

Sweden vs. U.S.

Obviously, sharp differences exist in the sociopolitical climates of Sweden and the U.S. Most American independent schools probably would consider fealty to a national curriculum too high a price to pay for state subsidies. Indeed, local public schools in the U.S. are wary of a national curriculum. Nevertheless, the Swedish reforms parallel measures that could be adopted by individual states using their own educational standards.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The January 2003 report by Mikael Sandström and Fredrik Bergström, “School Choice Works! The Case of Sweden,” can be found at the Web site of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation at http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/schoolchoiceworks/swedenstudy0103.pdf.

The report is also available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #11451.