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The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disaster

Summary:
The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disaster Neo-liberals and libertarians have always provided a lot of ideologically founded ideas and ‘theories’ to underpin their Panglossian view on markets. But when they are tested against reality they usually turn out to be wrong. The promised results are simply not to be found. And that goes for for-profit private schools too. Sweden introduced a voucher-style reform in the 1990s and opened the market to for-profit schools. Since then the performance of the school system has deteriorated. The experiment soon turned out to be a momentous mistake. In Chile — the only other country in the world that has tried the same policy — it turned out as badly as in Sweden, and the country decided a couple of years ago to

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The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disaster

Neo-liberals and libertarians have always provided a lot of ideologically founded ideas and ‘theories’ to underpin their Panglossian view on markets. But when they are tested against reality they usually turn out to be wrong. The promised results are simply not to be found. And that goes for for-profit private schools too.

Sweden introduced a voucher-style reform in the 1990s and opened the market to for-profit schools. Since then the performance of the school system has deteriorated. The experiment soon turned out to be a momentous mistake. In Chile — the only other country in the world that has tried the same policy — it turned out as badly as in Sweden, and the country decided a couple of years ago to abandon the experiment. Sweden is now the only country in the world where we accept profit-driven companies to run publicly financed schools.

The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disasterIn the wake of the country’s nose dive in the PISA rankings, there’s widespread recognition that something’s wrong with Swedish schooling … Competition was meant to discipline government schools, but it may have instead led to a race to the bottom …

It’s the darker side of competition that Milton Friedman and his free-market disciples tend to downplay: If parents value high test scores, you can compete for voucher dollars by hiring better teachers and providing a better education—or by going easy in grading national tests. Competition was also meant to discipline government schools by forcing them to up their game to maintain their enrollments, but it may have instead led to a race to the bottom as they too started grading generously to keep their students …

It’s a lesson that Swedish parents and students have learned all too well: Simply opening the floodgates to more education entrepreneurs doesn’t disrupt education. It’s just plain disruptive.

Ray Fisman

Henry M. Levin — distinguished economist and director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University — wrote this when he reviewed the evidence about the effects of vouchers:

The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disasterOn December 3, 2012, Forbes Magazine recommended for the U.S. that: “…we can learn something about when choice works by looking at Sweden’s move to vouchers.” On March 11 and 12, 2013, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences did just that by convening a two day conference to learn what vouchers had accomplished in the last two decades …

  • On the criterion of productive efficiency, the research studies show virtually no difference in achievement between public and independent schools for comparable students. Measures of the extent of competition in local areas also show a trivial relation to achievement …The so-called national examination result that is also used in some studies is actually administered and graded by the teacher with examination copies available to the school principal and teachers well in advance of the “testing”. Another study found no difference in these achievement measures between public and private schools, but an overall achievement effect for the system of a few percentiles. Even this author agreed that the result was trivial.
  • With respect to equity, a comprehensive, national study sponsored by the government found that socio-economic stratification had increased as well as ethnic and immigrant segregation. This also affected the distribution of personnel where the better qualified educators were drawn to schools with students of higher socio-economic status and native students.

A recent Swedish study on the effects of school choice concluded:

The results from the analyses made in this paper confirm that school choice, rather than residential segregation, is a more important factor determining variation in grades than is residential segregation.

The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disasterThe empirical analysis in this paper confirms the PISA-based finding that between-school variance in student performance in the Swedish school system has increased rapidly since 2000. We have also been able to show that this trend towards increasing performance gaps cannot be explained by shifting patterns of residential segregation. A more likely explanation is that increasing possibilities for school choice have triggered a process towards a more unequal school system. A rapid growth in the number of students attending voucher-financed, independent schools has been an important element of this process …

The idea of voucher-based independent school choice is commonly ascribed to Milton Friedman. Friedman’s argument was that vouchers would decrease the role of government and expand the opportunities for free enterprise. He also believed that the introduction of competition would lead to improved school results. As we have seen in the Swedish case, this has not happened. As school choice has increased, differences between schools have increased but overall results have gone down. As has proved to be the case with other neo-liberal ideas, school choice—when tested—has not been able to deliver the results promised by theoretical speculation.

John Östh, Eva Andersson, Bo Malmberg

What have we learned from this expensive experiment? School education should be publicly funded and provided by public schools and not by companies driven by profit interests!

For more on my own take on this issue — only in Swedish, sorry — see here, here, and here.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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