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 is widely accepted by all political parties.
Even Sweden’s Social Democratic 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 both 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 with taxes and then in private school fees? The more practical argument came from Swedish experience with educational reforms and innovations in the 1970s that to a large degree failed. It not only caused high costs for society and generations of students who saw few improvements, but it also created an aversion against further innovations and pedagogical experiments.
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. The purpose was to create equal financial conditions while protecting the ultimate right of the voters and taxpayers to create a budget for spending on schools. Since the public school still often is the default choice, that means that independent schools need to be more creative, productive or academically successful with equal funding in order to compete.
With 15 years of 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, involved in developing the reform in the 1990s, I often get comments from American friends: “You’re supposed to be the socialists, not us,” they say and ask, “How is it that Sweden, with its egalitarian tradition, has 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.
Mr. 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.