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.
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 choice.
Sweden introduced school vouchers throughout the country in 1992 to deal with exactly the same quality problems we face in our public schools.
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 ages 12-18.
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 them.
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 them.
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 church-based.
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 Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Times