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School Vouchers in Sweden – Was it mistake?

“[…] the administration of schools is neither required by the financing of education, nor justifiable in its own right in a predominantly free enterprise society.”

Milton Friedman

Ever since Friedman first introduced the modern notion of school vouchers, there has been a lot of discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of such scheme. Since the 90s, school voucher advocates have been using the Swedish case as a successful example of school voucher policy. Disappointing standard testing results threaten this premise.

In 1992 Sweden undertook a large-scale voucher reform under the principle that schools cannot select students by such criteria as ability, socioeconomic status or ethnicity. This premise was vital since studies have shown that if schools are completely free to choose their student body, they are likely to react by trying to select the better students, which brings rewards for the school but at a social level leaves us with a zero sum game.

Böhlmark and Lindahl’s study on the Swedish reform confirmed that, under these preconditions, an increase in share of independent schools[1], improved long run educational outcomes. Moreover, the primary way in which competition affected outcomes was by improving the performance of the public schools around the independent schools, and not by outperforming the public schools. This suggests that school choice might simultaneously improve the quality of education for both private and public school students and lead to overall social benefits.

Despite these results, the reform has been criticized following Sweden’s recent disappointing PISA[2] results. However there is not a lot of scientific support for the belief that the voucher system explains Sweden’s relative decline. It might have been case that the municipalities with very few independent schools were the ones responsible – this is something Sweden can correct for in the future. Or, alternatively, other countries simply improved more than Sweden. The top of the ranking has been taken by countries like China, Singapore and Hong Kong which are booming economies who have had more space for growth including at an educational level. Furthermore, the adequacy of these tests in evaluating school systems is in itself questionable: If “test skills” have limited intellectual value, the effort devoted to competing over test outcomes is socially wasteful and the highest test scores gains observed in more competitive markets may be counter-productive.

I am convinced that the decision to adopt or not a voucher system is mainly dependent on the political and economical context of the region in question and not so much on the validity of the idea. Essentially, governments need to come to terms with what their priorities are: how much weight they wish to give to efficiency versus equity, how far they are willing to go against lobbying groups and specially what their goals are when it comes to education.

It is relevant to understand where Sweden’s PISA results are coming from. However, it is rushed to interpret them as proof that the voucher reform has failed.

 Margarida Anselmo, 715

[1] “Independent Schools” refers to privatly managed schools fully financed by school vouchers.
[2] Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading.

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Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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