NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 13, 2008

Schools run by private enterprise?  Free iPods and laptop computers to attract students?  It may sound out of place in Sweden, that paragon of taxpayer-funded cradle-to-grave welfare.  But a sweeping reform of the school system has survived the critics and, 16 years later, is spreading and attracting interest abroad.

Since the change was introduced in 1992 by a center-right government that briefly replaced the long-governing Social Democrats, the numbers have shot up:

  • In 1992, 1.7 percent of high schoolers and 1 percent of elementary schoolchildren were privately educated.
  • Now the figures are 17 percent and 9 percent.

In some ways, the trend mirrors the rise of the voucher system in the United States, with all its pros and cons.  But while the percentage of children in U.S. private schools has dropped slightly in recent years, signs are that the trend in Sweden is growing:

  • Before the reform, most families depended on state-run schools following a uniform national curriculum.
  • Now they can turn to the "friskolor," or independent schools, which choose their own teaching methods and staff, and manage their own buildings.
  • They remain completely government-financed and are not allowed to charge tuition.
  • The difference is that their government funding goes to private companies, which then try to run the schools more cost-effectively and keep whatever taxpayer money they save.

Some Swedes say the private system drains funds from public education, but officials say independent schools have forced public schools to raise their own standards and improve efficiency.

"Today, I think we have at least as good quality if not better than some independent schools because we have really joined the battle and use our money in a much better way," said Eva-Lotta Kastenholm, who is in charge of public schools in Sollentuna, a suburb of Stockholm.

Source: Malin Rising, "Embracing Private Schools," Associated Press/Washington Times, August 11, 2008.

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