In Sweden / Free Choice and Vouchers Transform Schools - ASCD
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October 1, 1996

In Sweden / Free Choice and Vouchers Transform Schools

In four years, this traditionally Social Democratic country has promoted school choice, instituted vouchers, and improved the condition of independent schools. But will the nationwide experiment continue?

Sweden is perhaps one of the last places one might expect to see rapid and sweeping education reforms involving decentralization, privatization, school choice, competition, and the use of market forces. For most of this century, Sweden has been renowned for its relatively high standard of living, its social services, its strong central interventions to assure equality, and a tradition of Social Democracy. The trend over the last several decades has been moving increasingly toward greater equality and a higher standard of living, paid for with increasingly higher taxes.

Nonetheless, the Swedish model was dependent upon a growing economy, and during the 1980s, the economy began to stagnate and even decline. Today, Sweden has joined a host of other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that face high unemployment, large national debts, and slow economic growth. Largely in response to the dire economic situation, the government adopted reforms that changed the manner in which schools are financed, steered, and evaluated. Over the past five years, these reforms have transfigured the Swedish model.

Although the reforms have affected all levels of the education system and dealt with several key issues, such as decentralization and privatization, I will focus mainly on school choice and vouchers in the compulsory-level (primary and lower-secondary) schools.

Free-Choice Revolution

In 1991, the Social Democratic-led government approved legislation guaranteeing better finance and conditions for independent (private) schools. These schools are concentrated in the larger cities and are relatively small compared to municipal (public) schools. The most common type has a special pedagogical approach, for example, Montessori or Waldorf. Some have a religious orientation. Very few are "elite" in philosophy.

Before the legislation was passed, close to 90 independent schools operated in the country and many were publicly subsidized, though privately owned. The new legislation required municipalities to finance these schools according to their needs—in other words, in the same manner in which municipalities financed their public schools.

In late 1991, the election brought a new government to power: a coalition of four center- and right-wing parties. The new government declared a "free-choice revolution," and choice was not limited to parental choice of a school. A new national curriculum, adopted three years later, provided students with more chances to choose their courses or the subjects they wished to study in-depth. Likewise, all schools acquired more freedom to decide how to attain the goals for each subject specified in the national curriculum, and how to distribute the specified number of instruction hours per subject. Municipal schools were encouraged to create their own "profile," emphasizing, for example, the arts, sports, or another specific subject area or theme.

By 1994, most of the administration, planning, and responsibility for resource distribution for primary and secondary schools had been left to the municipalities or to the schools themselves. The new national curriculum, however, placed more emphasis on centrally-defined goals—for both municipal and independent schools. In this way, the role of the central government shifted from planning the inputs and regulating the process to evaluating the outputs.

Today, school choice can be divided into two types: (1) choice between municipal and independent schools, and (2) choice among municipal schools.

Vouchers for Independent Schools

In 1992, the coalition government proposed a voucher scheme for approved independent schools, legislation that was quickly approved and put into effect. The municipalities were required to pay a sum of money for each student enrolled in an approved compulsory-level independent school. The following year, similar voucher mechanisms were put in place for upper-secondary and special education independent schools. Each independent school was to receive at least 85 percent of the average per-student cost in the municipal schools.

The 15 percent reduction was justified by the fact that independent schools were not required to provide school health care, home language training, free meals, transportation, and so on. At the same time, municipalities were obliged to provide places for all students within their borders, regardless of ability or distance to school.

Many viewed the amount of public financing and the working conditions in the independent schools as among the most favorable for private schools in the world. The independent schools received little supervision—at least initially. The responsibility for supervision fell to the newly established National Agency for Education; the municipal authorities had no legal right to supervise these schools nor to question how independent schools used their money, even though the municipal authorities were forced to fund the schools. Although the independent schools were still allowed to charge fees, the legislation stated that these fees be "reasonable." During the first two years of this reform, essentially all applications to establish new independent schools were approved. Compared to similar reforms adopted by other countries, however, the legislation included very few restrictions or safeguards.

Of course, it is surprising to see the traditionally centrally steered and egalitarian Sweden go so far in implementing neoliberal reforms of which American conservatives could only dream. In fact, it was the system's very centralized nature that made possible the overnight implementation of a nationwide voucher system for independent schools. The United States has had to settle for more dispersed efforts to apply market mechanisms to the school system.

The national elections of 1994 brought the Social Democrats back to power. In their election campaign, they vowed to end the use of school vouchers. Once in office, however, they became hesitant to act. In 1995, they reduced the voucher from 85 to 75 percent of the average per-student costs in the municipal schools.

Municipal Choice

Theoretically, school choice has always been possible in Sweden. The central government has not legislated school choice or the use of vouchers for municipal schools, but the municipalities themselves set the conditions for choice among these schools. Currently, the law states that the wishes of parents and students should be followed to the greatest extent possible.

The principle of choice does not, however, go before the principle of proximity—that is, a municipal school should provide places for all students in its catchment (assigned neighborhood) area before providing places for others. Further, a municipality does not need to satisfy a student's request to attend another school if it will create economic or organizational problems. Pressing social reasons, however, could lead quickly to placement in another school (for example, harassment by peers or the need for a child or mother to move because of domestic abuse).

In a number of urban municipalities, choice has been encouraged through open enrollment, with money following the student. Significantly, in these municipalities, nearly 80 percent of the students who chose a school other than the one they were assigned to are attending another municipal school rather than a private alternative.

One cannot deny that the reform has made municipal schools more efficient. Perhaps the greatest impact has been the innovations they have made since they lost their longstanding monopoly but gained greater autonomy and flexibility to compete.

What Reform Has Wrought

Contrary to what one might have predicted, the nationwide voucher scheme has not brought about dramatic changes in the country as a whole. Tradition and people's general satisfaction with their schools have weighed more heavily than expected. Yet four years after approval of the voucher scheme for independent schools, we can see a number of trends emerging and begin to assess the reform's impact on education.

Enrollments. Given the favorable conditions for independent schools, one would have expected a large shift in enrollments from municipal schools. Yet in four years, enrollments in compulsory-level independent schools have increased from only about 1 percent to 2.1 percent. The number of these schools has more than doubled during this period, going from 89 in the 1991-92 school year to 238 in the 1995-96 school year. The total number of students enrolled in these schools, however, increased from 7,337 to 20,247. In other words, growth in relation to total national enrollments has been minimal.

The main changes in enrollments have occurred in the larger cities where most of the independent schools are found. These schools are still quite small, with 85 students on average, as compared to an average of 196 students in municipal schools.

Of all independent schools, Montessori schools have witnessed the greatest enrollment increases. Schools with religious profiles increased very rapidly just after the reform was initiated but are now expanding much more slowly than the other types; they currently account for about 17 percent of independent school enrollments. During the last few years, a number of Islamic schools have joined the religious school category, which is otherwise dominated by Christian schools. Other types of schools include those with a language or ethnic profile (8.5 percent of independent school enrollments), international schools (7.0 percent), schools with a special subject profile (7.5 percent), and residential schools (.9 percent).

Fees. Many independent schools still charge fees. The National School Agency is concerned that the fees are unreasonably high in more than a dozen cases, and has asked the schools to reduce them. Among the newly established independent schools, however, fees are not very common (Miron 1993).

Since school vouchers were introduced, average school fees for the independent schools have decreased. The average annual fee is roughly equivalent to $200 in U.S. money, or about 3 percent of the total resources of the independent schools. Estimates showed that in the 1994-95 school year (Skolverket 1995), municipal and independent schools had about the same per-student costs (about $7,100 in U.S. money).

Segregation. Segregation and disparities among schools are becoming increasingly apparent, particularly in and around Sweden's three larger urban areas. The municipalities in these areas accommodate most of the independent schools and also have the most favorable conditions for choice among public schools.

In Stockholm and its surrounding municipalities, a few reports about the ethnic sorting of students have come out. Children of Swedish origin are moving from schools with large numbers of immigrant students. Likewise, children of well-educated immigrants are starting to move from schools with predominately immigrant students. While extreme examples can be found in a handful of schools, in the country as a whole, not much changed.

Disparities in choice are also increasing in Sweden because very few independent schools are being established in rural or remote areas. More than 100 of the country's 288 municipalities have no independent schools at all. Thus, the so-called free-choice revolution remains largely an urban phenomenon.

Children with special needs. Although cuts are being made in all areas, the support for children with special learning needs seems to be the most affected. This is rather surprising, as Sweden has long been known for its progressive, high-quality support services for children with disabilities and other special needs.

Special education teachers and home-language teachers have been most affected by the overall cuts in the teachers' ranks. A report from the Stockholm School Administration (Stockholms Skolor 1992) noted that 80 special teacher positions—nearly a quarter of those in the municipality—had been eliminated. In addition, half class sessions for more individualized attention were cut back, and the number of hours devoted to speech therapy was cut in half.

Such reports raise the concern about segregation by ability, which would mark a reversal in Swedish education policy.

Money Pressures

Many of these adverse impacts are not necessarily due to school choice, vouchers, or even increased efficiency, but rather to state and municipal budget cuts. During the last four years, in fact, costs for compulsory-level schooling have been substantially reduced because of budget cuts. Between 1991 and 1994, there was a 17 percent reduction in instruction costs alone, a reduction that has been reflected in increasingly fewer teachers in the schools, even while national enrollments are increasing because of large age cohorts entering the school system.

The economic pressure on the schools is great, and many of the difficult decisions about how and where to make cuts have been delegated to school principals. This has resulted in innovative—though sometimes drastic—measures to deal with reduced budgets. A number of schools, for example, have had sponsors pay for their textbooks, in turn allowing the sponsors to advertise in the books. (In a few textbooks, more pages are devoted to advertisements than to instructional text.) Some schools have cut back on health services, such as vaccinations that are usually given in school.

Looking Ahead—Warily

This past May, the Social Democratic government presented new legislation, which will be voted on this November. If approved, school vouchers would be discontinued. Instead, independent schools would receive funding based upon their needs, as the 1991 legislation had planned. Further, school fees would be prohibited in independent schools that receive public funding.

The municipalities, however, would gain more power to supervise these schools and would even be able to deny funding if this causes substantial negative consequences for the municipality. For example, some small municipalities have as few as four or five public schools, and a new independent school would reduce funding for the others on short notice. In addition, independent schools would be required to provide school health care and home-language training to children with immigrant backgrounds. And they would be obliged to follow more closely the general goals and values spelled out in the national curriculum.

The government claims that these changes will provide "equivalent" conditions for independent and municipal schools, as both will receive funding based upon their needs. Yet a few opposition parties insist that this reform will lead to the slow strangulation of independent schools. They promise to tear up this reform if and when they return to power.

In practice, the conditions for independent schools will vary depending upon the political composition of their municipal government. Still, if the 1996 legislation becomes law, it would end the nationwide experiment, and Sweden, like the United States, would have to settle for isolated, scattered attempts to test and apply voucher schemes and school choice.

References

Miron, G. (1993). Choice and the Use of Market Forces in Schooling: Swedish Education Reforms for the 1990s. Stockholm: Institute of International Education.

Skolverket. (1995). Skolan: JNmfirelsetal fir skolhuvudmNn. Stockholm: The National School Agency (Skolverket).

Stockholms Skolor. (1992). De Stora smU firlorarna. Situationen fir elever med svUrigheter och sNrskilda behov. Stockholm: Stockholm School Administration.

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