Adam Ozimek on Sweden’s Free Schools

Adam Ozimek has a brief post on the virtues of Sweden’s entry-friendly system of school choice, drawing primarily on a new working paper by Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl:

Sweden’s voucher policy allowed easy entry of independently run private schools which any student could attend. Prior to this policy less than 1% of Sweden’s students attended private schools, but by 2009 it had increased to 11%. The authors find that the higher percent of voucher students there are in a district the better students do on a variety of outcomes. They find a a positive effect on test scores, compulsary school grades, choosing an academic high-school track, high-school grades, probability of attending college, and average education by age 24. The study is impressive in it’s scope of data, especially in tracking later outcome variables.

Importantly, they find that the primary way that competition effects outcomes is by improving the performance of the nearby public schools, and not by outperforming the public schools.

Sweden’s system is stringently regulated. It aims to minimize adverse selection and it explicitly bars parents from topping up the voucher. For a very different, and thus far untested, model of school choice, consider Herbert Walberg’s column on Texas’s Savings Grant Program:

The Texas governor and lieutenant governor have urged radical school reforms, and legislative leaders have endorsed the Savings Grant Program for several reasons. The legislation would reimburse parents for the tuition costs of the private schools they choose or 60 percent of the Texas average per-pupil public school expenditure, whichever amount is smaller. Thus, each participating student would save the state at least 40 percent of the usual public school per-student cost. Presented as a budget proposal rather than yet another “education reform,” it consists of only five sentences.

The plan is so simple that the state Comptroller’s office, rather than the Texas Education Agency, would administer it. It would avoid the usual lengthy and complex school legislation requiring interpretations, additional administrators at the state, school district, and school levels, and possible lawsuits.

The Texas plan differs from charter, voucher, and tax deduction plans in key ways that will give parents substantially more choice. Unlike voucher and charter school plans, enrollment isn’t capped, there are no family poverty requirements, and no new regulations on participating schools. Oversubscribed schools could enlarge or multiply the number of their campuses. Unlike tax credit plans, participation is not limited to people who pay state income taxes; every child receives the same sized grant, and no bureaucratic agencies nor regulations stand between parents and the schools they choose. For these reasons, it appears that the Texas plan may be the last, best hope for American K-12 education.

One assumes that the Savings Grant Program will be criticized on the grounds that it will lead to “cream-skimming” or adverse selection. That is, the students who are least expensive to educate and discipline may start attending lean start-up schools in large numbers, thus limiting the potential savings. The basic idea behind the Savings Grant Program strikes me as attractive, and there are other ways to capture its benefits, e.g., Indiana allows students who graduate early to retain some of the resulting savings to pay for college, a cafeteria plan that offers course-level instructional choice would put constructive cost pressure on instructional providers, etc. But the SGP is likely to prove politically tricky.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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