On the Swedish voucher system

Swedish test-scores are deteriorating, both among native Swedes and immigrants.

The left is blaming this on Sweden’s popular system of vouchers. The Swedish private schools (“friskolor”) are funded by public vouchers but privately owned and managed, which the left dislikes. In this article for example “ideological…market-experiments” are accused of having caused a decline in the “level of knowledge in schools”.

However if we look at PISA-test-scores 2000-2009, it is apparent that 8th-grade test scores are dropping like a rock in public schools, but actually increasing in private schools.


Between 2006-2009 the results fall declined in private schools, but even during this period they fell more in public schools. It is sometimes argued that the higher test-scores of private schools in Sweden is due to grade inflation. However the PISA scores are internationally standardized, so they are a fair metric.

Keep in mind that there may be composition changes going on here, which the averages don’t tell us about. It is also theoretically possible that the decline in public schools is caused by private schools. One claim of the left is that if the smart and motivated kids leave, the other children become worse students. The Swedish left also accuses private schools of draining public schools from resources, which go towards detested profits. However it is unlikely for several reasons that pubic school failure is the fault of private schools.

First, the private school sector remains small, with less than 10% of 8th graders tested by PISA in 2009.

Second, in Sweden private schools cost taxpayers 8 percent less per public on average than public schools, so they are not draining financial resources. The average profit margin of all Swedish private schools is only 5% (and much of this is the return of injections of capital into the schools).

Third, studies seem to indicate that there is little sorting in Swedish private schools, that is to say it is not mainly the richest or brightest kids who go to private schools. (e.g Böhlmark and Lindahl, 2007, 2009).

Lastly international research has generally failed to detect a negative effect of school choice on those who stay behind. (having more girls in your class may help, but that’s another issue).

Studies of school choice suffer from methodological problems, because children who choice private schools may be different in ways we cannot control for. Therefore probably the best study are those like this one, which uses lotteries. There is no comparable study for Sweden. They generally find that school choice does not lower outcomes, contrary to the claims of the Swedish left. While they also don’t detect major increases in test scores, they detect improvement in outcome variables such as arrest rates.

Voucher funded schools have more satisfied teachers and parents and students. They cost less for taxpayers. They don’t appear to hurt public schools. In addition, they have been improving their test-scores in a period where public schools scores are declining.

Despite all of this, the Social Democrats blame the crisis of Swedish education on private schools, even though it is the 90% or so of children in public schools who are doing particularly poorly, and even though they present no evidence whatsoever that this long term decline is caused by private schools. If anyone is being blindly “ideological” on this issue, it is the left. This is especially clear with regards to their emotional aversion to and overestimation of profits.

Having written all this, let me criticize the right.

This will pain them to learn, but they are putting too much faith in private schools, and too much weight on test scores in evaluating private schools. The sad truth is that test-scores are mostly determined by I.Q and home environment, not by which school you attend.

Let me show you this depressing graph from a recent paper by James Heckman for white children in the U.S:


You will notice that gaps in child test scores emerge early (age 3) and persist through age 18. Schools contribute little to closing these gaps.

The Swedish right has accepted the quasi-Marxist view of the left and liberals, which is that people are blank slates, that ability is equally distributed and that schools consequently can easily raise cognitive skills.

The left deludes itself into believing society can do this just as soon as we give schools a little more money (meanwhile real spending per pupil has more than doubled in a period where test-scores have declined). The right instead deludes itself into believing in this Utopian vision just as soon as we make schools capitalist (meanwhile decades of private choice in Sweden and Chile have only moderate improvements in outcomes).

It would be one thing if private schools were able to dramatically change the curriculum and drill students like military schools or (horror horror) Swedish schools in 1965. American catholic schools successfully improve the life outcomes of minority students where public schools fail.

While raising everyone’s I.Q dramatically through capitalist schools is a fantasy, there is in principle no reason Sweden cannot return to historical test score levels.

But this would require going back to historical curriculum and historical norms. The power vacuum that has emerged in Swedish schools and leads to mini Lord-of-the-flies classrooms has to be filled by adults. Repetition and memorization (both of which do not require the child to have above average I.Q to work) should again become the foundation of learning. The post-modern pedagogic theories taught to teachers in the universities must be discarded into the trashcan of history.

There is a lot of rhetoric from the Swedish right on education reform, but no sign of any of this happening. Making schools private in form without allowing them to depart from the current curriculum is not going to magically fix the problems. This faux-capitalism would not truly utilize the advantages of free-enterprise, and making promises you cannot deliver on will only discredit capitalism among the public.

If the right keeps promising better education outcomes without fixing the core problems voters will sooner or later wise up and punish them. Education minister Jan Björklund should close the rhetoric to reform gap, either by shutting up or by actually doing something about the situation.

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