Swedish educational system

Sweden Has an Education Crisis, But It Wasn't Caused by School

Editor’s Note: Tino Sanandaji, a National Review

In the early 1990s, Sweden introduced one of the most ambitious school-voucher systems in the world. The state still pays for education, but it gives parents the choice to take their voucher to any public or private school. In Slate, Ray Fisman, an economist at Columbia Business School, argues that the voucher experiment failed, citing the recent decline in Sweden’s school performance.

Professor Fisman is right to criticize Sweden’s educational system. He is mistaken, however, when he attributes the Swedish school crisis to our embrace of school choice. Regardless of how you judge the voucher reform, which is far from flawless, it did not cause the decline. The evidence for a decline in Sweden’s educational performance comes from PISA, an international survey sponsored by the OECD. The first PISA test of fifteen-year-olds was carried out in 2000 and the most recent was carried out in 2012.

Excluding Asian countries, there were 24 countries surveyed — between the first and last round, Sweden’s ranking fell from 7th to 23rd place. By contrast, Finland was the highest scoring non-Asian country both years. The OECD writes: “No other PISA-participating country saw a steeper decline in student performance over the past decade than Sweden.”

It is easy to see why Fisman is inclined to blame Sweden’s choice-based educational reforms. Sweden implemented the most sweeping voucher system in the world, literary citing Milton Friedman as inspiration. A few years later, Swedish PISA scores are a national embarrassment. At a superficial glance, it might seem absurd to deny the failure of privatization. A closer look at the data, however, tells a different story.

As Fisman himself acknowledges in passing, only 14 percent of Swedish fifteen-year-olds are enrolled in private school. (Which, by the way, contradicts his incredibly inaccurate claim that “more Swedish students go to privately run (and mostly for-profit) schools than in any other developed country on earth”; the PISA reports he’s citing show other countries have much higher rates of private-school attendance.)


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