Say “Sweden” and most Americans think Volvo and IKEA. There is more to the Scandinavian country, however, than just sturdy cars and innovative furniture. Sweden is the world leader when it comes to parental choice in education.
Up until 1991 local governments operated almost all Swedish schools. That changed with the passage of a revolutionary law that allowed parents to send their children to any school, government-run or private independent, with public funding following the child.
So, if Mr. and Mrs. Andersson choose to send their daughter Margareta to the new friskolor, the private independent school down the street, the local government provides funding to the friskolor to pay for Margareta’s education costs at a rate roughly equivalent to what municipal schools receive. All parents, regardless of their income level, can choose the type of school that best suits their children and have the funding follow them. The Swedish law has spawned a huge expansion in the number of private independent schools, including those run by Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES).
Barbara Bergstrom, IES founder, started the first IES school in 1993 “with the conviction that commanding the English language is imperative in order for youngsters to realize their full potential in the modern world.” Explaining IES philosophy, she says: “We believe in discipline, the concept of ‘tough love’ and we have high expectations for everyone.” She emphasizes diagnostic testing: “Using a system of continuous assessment we ensure that we always know how each child is progressing and can avoid unpleasant surprises at the end of the school year.” She tells people, “there is nothing like seeing our school in action,” which is exactly what I had the opportunity to do.
The Pacific Research Institute is filming a documentary based on its acclaimed 2007 book Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice. Since Sweden’s school-choice law allows all parents, including those who are middle-class, to choose public or private education options for their children, a PRI film crew and myself journeyed to Sweden in September to see some choice schools in action. We visited IES headquarters in Taby, outside Stockholm, and met Mrs. Bergstrom and Peter John Fyles, IES managing director.
Mr. Fyles pointed out that before Sweden enacted its choice law there were only a tiny number of high-priced independent schools in the Stockholm area. Now, he noted, the law gives middle-class parents the opportunity to send their children to schools like those run by IES that they previously would not have been able to afford. We then visited the IES school in Eskilstuna, a town about an hour and a half from Stockholm.
Under the leadership of principal Maud Segerstedt-Jarlsbro and academic coordinator Damian Brunker, Eskilstuna IES school, like all other IES schools, scores far above the national average on Sweden’s tests in core subjects. Teachers and students emphasized how the disciplined high-expectations environment results in vastly improved learning. When asked what his achievement would have been like if he had stayed at his previous municipal school, an articulate ninth-grader named Martin said, “I would have been five times more stupid!” Martin and his fellow students painted a picture of government-run schools where classrooms were chaotic or lackadaisical and where students weren’t pushed to excel. All were very happy to attend the IES school.
The experience of the IES students underscores the importance of school choice for parents around the world. Per Unckel, current governor of Stockholm and minister of education when the Swedish school-choice law was implemented, said that all parents have the inherent right to send their children to the school of their choice. Competition, he observed, helps give parents better choices and raises the level of performance of both the friskolor and government-run schools. Parents, he emphasized, should be given choice options immediately, without having to wait for government-run school to fail for several consecutive years because every year in a failing school is a year wasted in a child’s life.
In education, Sweden is the future. If policymakers in Sacramento and Washington really want to embrace change, they need to follow the lead of our Scandinavian friends and give all parents choice.