Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sweden Provides Parents a Smörgåsbord of Educational Options

Via Princess Mom over at "Help! My Kids are Smarter Than Me", I came across a very interesting article in the UK's Guardian newspaper about Sweden's education system. Sweden outscored the U.S. on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in science, reading, and mathematics. Reading the Guardian article gave me a major case of educational envy:

"There are no standard schools....Neither is there a fixed syllabus or curriculum; instead, the state sets out various goals in 19 different subjects that students are expected to reach within a fixed number of hours and it's up to each school how they go about teaching the material."

How refreshing for a government to recognize that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to education!

"The main reason Sweden has come to people's notice is the way it's funded. Each student comes with his or her own price tag and the state - or rather the municipality (ie the local education authority) has to pay. Within a few practical parameters, students may choose which school they want to go to and what programme they want to study, and the municipality has to oblige....If parents don't like their local school they can apply to ones that are further away - though they will have to meet the child's transportation costs. And if they really don't like anything on offer from the state, they can send their child to an independent school. Or even start one up themselves."

Wow, what a concept- allowing all parents (not just wealthy ones) to choose the school that is the best match for their child's needs. The Swedes also permit vouchers to be used at religious-affiliated schools, so that parents can send their children to schools that reinforce their family's values.

Critics of vouchers in the U.S. often claim that implementing a voucher system will benefit the rich at the expense of government-run schools. Sweden's experience shows these fears are exaggerated. Poorer Swedes actually choose private schools at a higher rate than do affluent ones. Also, student performance at government-run schools has increased, lending credence to the argument that increased competition leads to a push for quality improvement.

While the Swedish voucher system is a major improvement over the current system here in the U.S., it is not perfect. It prohibits schools from selecting pupils on any basis other than first-come, first-serve (thereby effectively prohibiting specialized schools such as those for the gifted or with learning disabilities). Sweden also restricts private schools from charging tuition above the value of the voucher. If a voucher program with these restrictions were instituted where I live, most of the existing private schools would likely not participate. The voucher would be enough to cover tuition at some of the Catholic, Lutheran, and other Christian schools but not the local Jewish school and the secular private schools.

Vouchers should be like Pell Grants, where a student can use them at any accredited school. If it does not cover the full tuition at a particular school, families should be allowed to spend their own money or any scholarship money they receive to make up the gap.

This is the way that my health insurance works- I can either see a network doctor who has agreed to accept what Blue Cross is willing to pay or I can see any doctor I want but then I will be responsible for all the charges above and beyond the insurance payment. Most of the time, I do end up sticking with the network providers, but at least I have the freedom to go elsewhere should I so decide. I don't have to sacrifice my right to choose my doctor in order for the insurer to pay its share. The same should apply for educational vouchers.

Politicians looking to do something about the abysmal state of education in this country ought to take a look at Sweden's success with its voucher system.

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