Sweden’s Vouchers Are Charter Schools

Scott Sumner, discussing Sweden, overlooks something that I find to be common when right-of-center Americans talk about Swedish education: “Their vouchers for education don’t require you to live in Milwaukee, or enter a lottery. Everyone in the country is eligible, and their kids are free to go to any approved school; public, not-for-profit, or for-profit.”

This is accurate, but it’s important to note that there are crucial caveats around what kind of school can get approved. Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl have a good brief explanation in “Does School Privatization Improve Educational Achievement? Evidence from Sweden’s Voucher Reform”* (PDF):

Third, the most radical reform was that starting in 1992 municipalities had to provide private schools with a grant, equivalent to (most of) the average per-pupil expenditure in the public school system, for each pupil residing in the municipality who choose to enroll in a private school. Thus, the recourses devoted to public schools are directly affected by the choices of pupils. To be eligible for public funding, private schools have to be approved by the National Agency for Education (NAE). These schools then have to follow the national curriculum and are not allowed to select pupils by ability, socio-economic characteristics or ethnicity. If a school is oversubscribed, three selection criteria for admittance are allowed: proximity to the school; waiting list (where each child’s place in line is determined by the date of the parents’ application); priority to children who have siblings already enrolled in the school. Private schools are not allowed to charge any fees. Hence, top-up funding over and above the voucher is not allowed.

This is obviously not identical to American practice. But the schools Swedish kids can attend are essentially what we call “charter schools” in the United States, rather than true private schools with selective admissions. In effect, Swedish practice is like what exists in American states (Arizona, for example) with lots of charter schools and it’s quite similar to what the Obama administration (and I) are pushing. The big difference is that for-profit operators are allowed to run schools in Sweden, which I’d be for allowing.


* Their answer? It does in the short-term, but the gains fade. All else being equal I favor more choice, so I’d regard the reform as a good thing but I assume the architects of the reform were hoping for something more.