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The Case For School Choice: Sweden

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Recent reform of educational policy in Sweden has made it possible for Swedish families to send their children to any school, government or independent, without paying fees. In a few years, the policy has stimulated an enormous growth in innovative independent schools, encouraged improvements to municipal schools, and united socialist and conservative politicians, nearly all of whom now support school choice.


As Swedish socialism gained momentum in the first half of this century, the taxation policies of the dominant Social Democratic party made it virtually impossible for families to afford anything but municipal schools. A decade ago, Swedish independent schools served less than one percent of school-age students, a smaller fraction than independent schools served in any other country in Western Europe. The independent schools that were able to survive did so either because they catered to the moneyed elite or because they were governed and subsidized by one of the churches. Municipal education was heavily regulated by central government but was not held accountable for its outputs. Swedish government schools, like those in New Zealand, became known for their drab character and indifference to parental concerns. Dissatisfaction with educational policy grew for a generation (Lundgren 1998) until fundamental organizational reforms were implemented virtually overnight in 1991. That year, a new government came into power promising to end central planning in education and to replace it with decentralization and school choice.

The Swedish Voucher System

The 1991 legislation devolved power from the central government onto parents, municipalities and independent schools. Education objectives were nationally legislated but their implementation became, for the first time, the role of the municipalities. The reforms also gave parents educational choice. For the first time, parents were free to send their children to any government school within their municipality or to an independent school, with public funding following the child to the school chosen. Independent schools approved by the National Agency for Education would receive 85 percent of the cost of educating a student in the municipal school system. The opposition party vehemently opposed the legislation but in its first year the number of independent schools doubled and quickly filled with students (Lundgren 1998).

As early as 1993, a poll conducted by the National Agency of Education found that "85 per cent of Swedes value their new school choice rights" and "59 per cent of Swedish parents think that teachers work harder when there is school choice" (CGR 1997: 2). This was true even though only two percent of Swedes had exercised those rights. When the Social Democrats returned to power in 1994, the benefits and popularity of school choice were already becoming evident. They were felt both by the children attending new independent schools and by those who remained in the government-run system, which was starting to respond to parental concerns. As one Swedish professor of education concluded, "one cannot deny that the reform has made municipal schools more efficient" (Miron 1996: 79).

Swedish governments have changed the voucher amount twice since 1991, first reducing it from 85 to 75 percent and, then, in 1997 raising it--in theory at least--to 100 percent of municipal schools' funding per student (Ornbrant 1998). The new funding system is still very new and the independent schools are still unsure of their place in a country governed by a party that, until recently, had done everything in its power to undermine them (Svangren 1998; Rydberg 1998; Burenstam-Linder 1998). The uncertainty was enough to close a couple of schools and, no doubt, to discourage the founding of many others, but the National Agency of Education continues to receive hundreds of applications each year from parents and educators hoping to start their own schools (Eriksson 1998). Last year it received 195 applications and this year the number has increased to 269, due largely to the increased demand for independent secondary schools (Rolf Ornbrant, Secretary, Fristkommittén, Ministry of Education, April 28, 1999, personal communication).

Though they began as a tiny minority of the education supply, independent schools are a growing and diversifying sector whose long-term influence on Swedish education belies the current proportion of the student population--3.6 percent in 1998/1999--that it serves. The supply of these schools is growing by from one-half to one percent per year, educating approximately 3500 more students every year (see figure 5), at a time when the school-aged population in Sweden is declining. Last year, the number of students in independent schools increased by 15 percent, despite the fact that the total number of school-aged students in Sweden declined by 11 percent (Rolf Ornbrant, Secretary, Fristkommittén, Ministry of Education, April 28, 1999, personal communication). Independent schools are expected to be educating 10 to 15 percent of students within a decade (Eriksson 1998; Andersson 1998). No one can estimate its eventual magnitude but it appears that demand for independent schooling vastly exceeds the current supply.

The first independent schools to establish themselves under the new system were those with previously established communities and interests--schools with either a religious or a pedagogical affiliation. These included confessional (15 percent) and ethnic schools (15 percent) followed by a wave of Montessori (25 percent) and Waldorf schools (15 percent). Currently, the fastest growing schools are those started by teachers, parents and educators who were dissatisfied with the education provided by their local government schools. Each new school offers students an educational alternative in response to a local demand and is paid for by the public voucher.

One of the first independent schools, Botkyrka Friskola, was started by an ex-communist in a low-income, immigrant suburb of Stockholm. With an emphasis on individual student responsibility, familial involvement, and efficient use of technology, it now has over 2000 students waiting for one of its 240 places and a continuous stream of educators interested in imitating its success (Svangren 1998).

Public Vouchers and Public Controls

Though public vouchers are invigorating the Swedish education system and broadening the educational choices available to families, they have come with some strings attached. The first of these is the government's demand that independent schools select their pupils on a first-come, first-served basis. Special exceptions are granted only for siblings of current students, students with special needs, and those who live in the immediate vicinity of the school (Gustafsson 1998). Most independent schools are happy to accept students on this basis and would have done so even without this regulation.

The condition makes it difficult, however, for a school to establish a particular learning environment and does nothing to guarantee the equal access it was set up to ensure. Per Svangren, the principal of Botkyrka Friskola, hoped his school would become a challenging, multicultural environment for immigrant families poorly served by the local municipal school but, as its reputation grew, Swedish families in neighbourhoods with better schools began applying early. The school had to take the students who applied first, so it was forced to reject those whom its leaders believed would not only benefit most but also contribute most to the school's unique environment. As a result, a fundamental aspect of the school's mandate was compromised (Svangren 1998). Though they would be rare exceptions, (as experience in Denmark demonstrates) schools established for the academically gifted or those for a particular learning disability are impossible in this environment. It is a loss to Sweden that its politicians prohibit families from choosing a specialized education for their children and prohibit schools from making such educational alternatives available for them.

A second example of creeping regulation is a new rule prohibiting private tuition charges. When school choice was implemented six years ago and independent schools received 85 percent of municipal school funding, the government permitted them to charge tuition; those that did generally charged parents little. Now that independent schools receive, in theory at least, the same funding as municipal schools, they are not allowed to charge fees. This extreme egalitarian rule prevents parents from making additional educational investments, which would benefit their children.

Another recent change of legislation gives the local municipalities influence over the voucher amount owed to independent schools (Ornbrant 1998). Independent schools now receive their funding from the municipal school boards, many of which feel threatened by the new entrants. Leaders of municipal school boards--as American charter schools are also finding (Finn, Manno and Bierlein 1996: 6)--are used to viewing all "public education" funding as their own and are often loathe to hand it over to autonomous schools. This arrangement has set the scene for quarrelling and litigation between some Swedish municipalities and independent schools whose funding actually declined when it theoretically should have risen from 75 to 100 percent (Lundgren 1998). Last year, 75 percent of schools reported receiving more money than they had before the funding change but their gain was, on average, only 10 percent more than they had received the year before (Rolf Ornbrant, Secretary, Fristkommittén, Ministry of Education, April 28, 1999, personal communication).

For instance, Thérèse Burenstam-Linder, Principal of Enskilda Gymnasiet, one of Sweden's few old independent high schools, claims she now receives less than she had before the municipality was given control over the vouchers' distribution. She believes this happened because local education bureaucrats are resentful of Enskilda Gymnasiet's long-standing reputation for student achievement. She would prefer independent schools to receive only 75 percent from the Ministry than to have to contend with the local school board for 100 percent (Burenstam-Linder 1998). Perhaps the Danish system, which dispenses a single voucher amount from a central office to all schools, municipal and independent, is preferable. Municipal schools would then be on equal footing with their independent colleagues.

Funding Arbiter: The National Agency for Education

The Swedish model works well in most municipalities because of a strong, non-partisan National Agency for Education. If a local government can prove that the funding of independent schools would significantly damage its own capacity to provide education, it may take the issue to the National Agency. The impartial Agency then must assess whether or not a new school would be truly detrimental to the municipality as a whole. So far, out of the hundreds of cases brought to it, in every case but one the Agency has found that the establishment and equal support of the independent school would not materially encumber the provision of education to the community (Eriksson 1998).

Public vouchers have made independent schools dependent on public funding, and consequently, have given elected officials the power to make independent schools submit to public controls. The problem is not that the regulations imposed so far on admission of students and fees have impinged on the educational quality of many schools. Rather, the danger is that these central controls, which were minimal at first in Sweden, continue to multiply so that eventually independent schools are absorbed into the centrally controlled system. By removing the right of independent schools to charge fees or choose their students, Swedish politicians have taken the first step in this direction.

Public Information and Accountability of Schools

Over the past five years, continuously changing school funding policies have kept educational issues in the media and on parents' minds. Parents have responded to this information by voting with their feet and the number of students lining up for places in independent schools has far outstripped the new schools' ability to accommodate them. Because the majority of independent schools are less than three years old, it is difficult to make accurate quantitative or qualitative assessments of them. Friskolornas Riksförbund, the National Assembly of Independent Schools has a web site to disseminate updates on the political situation and provide information on their schools (Brobreg and Hultin 1998). Perhaps when the numbers of independent schools and students warrants the effort and the many policy reforms have been completed, the Assembly will focus attention on publishing information about their schools for the benefit of parents and the education community.

Sweden's voucher system has been an enormous step toward decentralization but all schools are still heavily regulated by central government. Both independent and municipal schools must follow curricula imposed by the government, which stipulates the exact number of hours each mandatory subject must be taught, and all students must sit local government tests four times in their academic careers (Gustafsson 1998). National testing could be used to keep schools accountable to the public and to help parents with their choice of schools but the results are neither calibrated to a national standard nor distributed for community use. They seem rather to be trivial bureaucratic impositions rather than important days of reckoning. In 1998, Sweden took steps towards creating national standards for upper secondary graduates (OECD1998: 124-25); such data might prove useful in developing a report ranking school achievements.

A recent report by the OECD recommended that Sweden continue to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of its education system by pursuing further the decentralization process started in 1991. It recommended more explicit independence for school administrators and greater parental influence on schools. In return for increased local control, the Ministry could demand greater accountability and quality controls from the municipalities (OECD 1998: 124-25) as New Zealand has done. These are very reasonable suggestions.

Opponents of school choice often claim that few parents care enough to give consideration to the selection of their children's school. In Sweden, even advocates of school choice were surprised at how quickly and broadly parents have claimed choice as a right. One shrewd politician who had opposed choice predicted privately, shortly after it was implemented, that the government monopoly of education had been overthrown forever (Lundgren 1998). Even in those early days of choice, he recognized that once people have been given the right to change schools, no democratic government can take it away from them. By this assessment, the short-term may be tempestuous but the long-term is assured. Indeed, today about one-half of Social Democrat politicians, one-quarter of the Communist, and all of the Environmentalist and Liberal-Conservative politicians support school choice, a sea change from five years ago when nearly all the Social Democrats and Communists supported the central government's monopoly of schools (Lundgren 1998).

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