NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A False Critique of Sweden's School Choice Program

July 24, 2014

Ray Fisman, a Columbia University economist, recently authored a piece at Slate criticizing Sweden's experiment with school vouchers. But that criticism, writes Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, was filled with inaccuracies and falsehoods.

Sweden introduced a system of private school choice in 1992. Since 2000, the country's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores -- which tests students in 65 countries in math, science and languages -- have been falling. Fisman links the private school choice program with the falling test scores, saying that the choice program has "thrown Swedish education off course."

Coulson breaks down the problems and errors in Fisman's argument. For example, Fisman writes that more Swedish students go to privately-run, and generally for-profit, schools than any other developed country.

  • But in fact, most private schools in Sweden are non-profit, and the share of Swedish students in private schools is just 14 percent, close to the OECD average.
  • The top five industrialized countries by share of private school enrollment are Belgium (68.4 percent), the Netherlands (67.6 percent), Ireland (58.2 percent), Korea (47.5 percent) and the U.K. (45.2 percent).

That small minority of students in private schools, writes Coulson, have not disrupted Swedish education.

  • Moreover, private voucher schools have outperformed public schools in terms of PISA performance.
  • Since 2000, when the PISA test was first administered, Swedish private schools have lost just 6 points overall, while Sweden's public schools have lost 34 points over the same period.

Knowing these facts, readers should be skeptical of accepting Fisman's conclusion, writes Coulson. 

Source: Andrew Coulson, "Sweden and School Choice," Education Next, July 22, 2014. 


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