Sweden is a model for American school-choice options 

In 1993, Sweden introduced a system of school choice and vouchers inspired by the ideas of American economists Milton and Rose Friedman. Even though the system was just as controversial then as any U.S. voucher proposal, the right to chose your school and bring the funding with you is today considered a natural right for families and widely accepted by all political parties.

Even Sweden’s Social Democrat party supports the system and recently closed an internal debate on for-profit schools by deciding that there is no virtue in running schools at a loss: Schools should be judged on their academic performance, not financial.

The reason for the Swedish voucher reform was philosophical and practical. The philosophical argument was that since taxpayers have agreed to share the cost for a free and good education, then why should some have to pay for it twice — first in taxes and then in private school fees?

The more practical argument came from Swedish experience with other reforms that created high costs for society and generations of students who saw few improvements.

As American state legislatures begin to convene this winter and again consider education reform, they should empower families and create conditions for entrepreneurship. And as school choice gains popularity among parents and taxpayers, particularly as this is National School Choice Week in the U.S., vouchers should absolutely be on the agenda.

When we designed the Swedish voucher system, we followed the Friedmans’ advice to keep it universal and simple. The answer was a system where funding follows the student regardless of their parents’ income.

Under our system, every family has the right to choose a school that’s right for their child. And every student brings with him the same amount of per-pupil funding as the cost of the public school in his or her home district.

But under our system, equal terms work both ways. If a school chooses to be part of the voucher system, it has to be all-inclusive, provide national standards and have its performance monitored. And it has no right to charge its students fees beyond the voucher.

With 15 years’ experience, we in Sweden can summarize the effects. Education’s private-sector share of students has grown from 1 percent to 10 to 15 percent, depending on grades.

In some areas the competition is fierce, with both public and independent schools closing as a result. The variety of independent schools is large in both ownership — from parental cooperatives to corporate chains — and in innovative pedagogy and practice, of which the much-acclaimed Kunskapsskolan is not the only interesting example.

Vouchers are not the sole fix for education — there is no such single reform. But with real competition, independent schools are still generally performing better academically than public schools, even if the differences probably will decrease as their share increases and failing schools disappear. More important perhaps, is that all schools — public and private — perform better in areas where alternatives are plentiful.

As a former Swedish state secretary of schools, I often get comments from Americans: “You’re supposed to be the socialists, not us. How does Sweden, with its egalitarian tradition, have one of the most radical systems for market-driven choice in the world?”

Maybe that is the answer. With our egalitarian tradition, we can’t accept that the right to choose the best school for your child should be reserved just for those who have the means to pay for it.

Odd Eiken is executive vice president of Kunskapsskolan Education, the largest private school provider in Sweden. He was state secretary of schools in Sweden 1991-94 and helped develop the nation’s voucher reform.

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Odd Eiken

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