Swedish simplicity in finance and schooling

Scott Sumner is full of praise for Sweden, including its radical 1992 reform of education, which grants freedom of choice to all parents of school-age children.

[W]hen it comes to politics and economics, I definitely think less is more.  I was reminded of this when frequent commenter Malavel sent me a new Swedish regulation requiring at least 15% down-payments on all mortgages.  That’s it, no bells and whistles, just 15%. ….

Sweden also has an income tax that is much simpler than ours (yes, I know that’s faint praise), where many (most?) taxpayers simply receive a bill in the mail.  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.

Scott Sumner, “Scandinavian simplicity”, The Money Illusion, 3 October 2010.

Sumner notes that the universal voucher system of course “has problems just like any other system”, then cites the following as an example:

One of the first independent schools, Botkyrka Friskola, was started by an ex-communist in a low-income, immigrant suburb of Stockholm. With an emphasis on individual student responsibility, familial involvement, and efficient use of technology, it now has over 2000 students waiting for one of its 240 places and a continuous stream of educators interested in imitating its success.

Public Vouchers and Public Controls

Though public vouchers are invigorating the Swedish education system and broadening the educational choices available to families, they have come with some strings attached. The first of these is the government’s demand that independent schools select their pupils on a first-come, first-served basis. Special exceptions are granted only for siblings of current students, students with special needs, and those who live in the immediate vicinity of the school. Most independent schools are happy to accept students on this basis and would have done so even without this regulation.

The condition makes it difficult, however, for a school to establish a particular learning environment and does nothing to guarantee the equal access it was set up to ensure. Per Svangren, the principal of Botkyrka Friskola, hoped his school would become a challenging, multicultural environment for immigrant families poorly served by the local municipal school but, as its reputation grew, Swedish families in neighbourhoods with better schools began applying early. The school had to take the students who applied first, so it was forced to reject those whom its leaders believed would not only benefit most but also contribute most to the school’s unique environment. As a result, a fundamental aspect of the school’s mandate was compromised. Though they would be rare exceptions, (as experience in Denmark demonstrates) schools established for the academically gifted or those for a particular learning disability are impossible in this environment. It is a loss to Sweden that its politicians prohibit families from choosing a specialized education for their children and prohibit schools from making such educational alternatives available for them.

Fraser Institute, “The case for school choice: Sweden”, Critical Issues Bulletin, September 1999.

You might think that the Fraser Institute, as a libertarian think tank, would be full of praise for the Swedish voucher system. You would be wrong. As I wrote two years ago:

If applicants exceed vacant spaces for a school [in Sweden], those first in the queue are the first to be admitted. Education is financed in part by municipal taxes, so per pupil expenditure does vary by municipality. But the grant per pupil does not vary by school and no school is allowed to charge top up fees regardless of the size of the municipal grant. ….

Precisely because Sweden does not allow private schools to charge fees or select students, its system has attracted criticism from libertarian groups such as the Fraser Institute.

Larry Willmore, “Basic Education as a Human Right Redux”, presented to a conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 26 July 2008.

I should clarify that not everything in Sweden is simple. The country’s reformed retirement income system, for example, is anything but simple.


One Response to “Swedish simplicity in finance and schooling”

  1. […] Sweden’s education reforms effectively amount to a voucher system (without tuition top-ups, residence restrictions or entrance exams), in which public schools have to compete with private schools on an equal basis. More on the reformed Swedish school system here. […]