September 11, 2009
By Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D.
Late last month, I returned to Washington after attending a
conference in Stockholm. In both national capitals, thousands of
children and their parents were in full back-to-school planning
But there was one big difference.
In the capital city of socialist Sweden, as in the rest of the
country, schoolchildren and their parents were finalizing their
choice of public or private school - using the school-voucher
program available to all Swedish children.
Back here in the capital of free-market America, Congress was
phasing out Washington, D.C.'s modest voucher program. Some 216
low-income families, who thought they were newly eligible for a
voucher, were told that they could rip up their private-school
acceptances and go back to their failing public schools.
No, I don't make these things up. All children throughout Sweden
get education vouchers. It seems that the citadel of socialism can
teach our Congress and teachers unions quite a bit about education
Sweden introduced school vouchers throughout the country in 1992
to deal with exactly the same quality problems we face in our
Under the program, enacted by a center-right coalition
government, children can use a voucher to go to either public
schools or one of the growing number of private schools.
Private schools include religious schools and even for-profit
schools. One of the largest for-profits - Kunskapsskolan (or
"Knowledge School") - runs 32 schools with about 10,000 students
These independent schools, like the public schools, get a
voucher payment for each child. They compete vigorously with one
other because the money follows the child to the school of his or
her choice. Schools must satisfy their customers ... or lose
No, the private schools cannot select the students they want.
They can't just cream the smartest and the richest. They have to
accept children on a first come, first serve basis. And they cannot
charge additional fees, so poor Swedish children have exactly the
same shot at the top private schools as rich children.
Children with special needs, such as learning disabilities, get
a larger voucher to cover the additional costs of accommodating
Every private school is free to design its own programs and
teaching methods, but each must cover the content of Sweden's
national curriculum. Each school also must participate in national
testing and be open to government inspection.
Before the voucher system was enacted in 1992, the Social
Democrats - then the opposition party - opposed it. But when they
were swept back to power in 1994, the voucher program was so
successful and popular that they did not repeal it. In fact they
expanded it, increasing the voucher amount from the original 85
percent of local public school costs to 100 percent.
According to Timbro, a Stockholm think tank that has been
studying the program, there is a good reason why the major parties
back vouchers. Swedes strongly support the program.
There is a higher level of satisfaction among children, parents
and teachers in the private Swedish schools. Measures of quality
among those schools are higher, and competition is also shaking up
the public schools and improving their quality.
The growth of the competing private sector has been dramatic.
Before the voucher program, less than 1 percent of Swedish children
attended private schools. Now it is 10 percent. At the senior high
school level, it is 20 percent. About one in five Swedish schools
is now private, and roughly 10 percent of the private schools are
While many of Sweden's private schools are nonprofit or
church-based, 60 percent of its private schools actually operate as
for-profit companies. Some are chains, such as Kunskapsskolan, but
many are smaller, local private schools. According to Timbro, the
average profit margin of these schools is about 4 percent, and
nearly 80 percent of the profits are reinvested in the schools.
Children of all backgrounds in Sweden have the legal right and
the financial means through vouchers to attend the school that is
right for them - public or private. True, in Washington and in
other parts of America, children now have access to charter
schools, which are shaking up the education landscape.
But it is ironic - and embarrassing - that if the 216 low-income
D.C. children now effectively being barred from going to private
school lived in socialist Sweden, they would be able to exercise
choice in a free-market school system.
Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D., is Vice
President for Domestic and Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage
First Appeared in The Washington Times
Late last month, I returned to Washington after attending a conference in Stockholm. In both national capitals, thousands of children and their parents were in full back-to-school planning mode.
Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow and Director, Center for Policy Innovation
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