Skip to main content

School Vouchers in Sweden

Roseanna Sommers '10

Proponents of school choice claim that free market reforms can reduce education spending without sacrificing the quality of education. Furthermore, they assert that school vouchers can be used to advance the goal of equal education for all students. Wealthy families have always been able to exercise school choice because their resources allow them to move to where the better schools are, the argument goes, and so less wealthy families should be given the same freedom. School vouchers, which are tax-funded certificates issued by the government that pay for students' tuition, are redeemable at any participating school, public or private. Thus they allow all families, regardless of socioeconomic status, to enroll their children in the school of their choice rather than being constricted to the public schools in their district. However, this account of how vouchers enable educational equity fails to take into account the ways in which existing disparities in geography and social capital affect the ability to exercise school choice. Additionally, voucher systems do not improve schools in practice the way they are meant to in theory because families choose schools based on inappropriate criteria, such as the social status of the enrolled students. Sweden's voucher system is an illustrative example of how neoliberal school choice reforms can actually serve to exacerbate existing social inequalities while failing to improve schools.

The Theory of Vouchers

The idea of vouchers was first proposed by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s as a way to increase the quality of educational offerings while controlling costs (Carnoy, 1998). In accordance with a free market paradigm, each child receives a voucher from the government that can be redeemed at any school approved by the state. Parents are then able send their children to the best schools, which causes inadequate schools to lose students and along with them, funds from vouchers. These failing schools are then forced to increase their cost-effectiveness through innovation, or else lose all of their student-customers to other, more efficient education providers.

The Politics and Economics of Vouchers

School choice reforms often occur as part of more general movements to decentralize education systems (Lundahl, 2005). These reforms are usually undertaken in response to widespread public discontent with the quality of education, as was the case in the U.S. in 1983 after the A Nation at Risk report caused considerable alarm at the state of public schools (Mondale & Patton, 2002). In the case of Sweden, however, the quality of schools was never the cause for concern. Rather, it was outrage over education expenditures that provided the impetus for the dramatic overhaul of Sweden's education system.

Economic woes of the 1960s and 1970s caused panic among Swedes that the cost of public schooling was crippling the economy (Daun, 2003). Education was often cited as a glaring example of all that was wrong with Sweden's welfare system: it was too rigid, too expensive, and horribly inefficient (Lundahl, 2002). When the long-reigning Social Democratic party briefly lost control of Parliament in 1990, the new Conservative leadership implemented aggressive neoliberal educational reforms. These included replacing the detailed national curriculum with broad goals articulated by the national government and intended to be carried out by local actors; changing the way municipalities received education funding so that it arrived in lump sums to be allocated by localities rather than in a series of small subsidies already earmarked for specified levels of schooling; and encouraging privatization of schools by readily approving the formation of nearly every new private school that applied to be chartered (Carnoy, 1998; Lundahl, 2009). On top of these reform efforts, a school voucher system was implemented in 1991. Under the original voucher program, vouchers could be redeemed at public or private compulsory-level schools, and private schools did not have to provide students with free meals, health care, or transportation in order to qualify for participation in the voucher program.  When the Social Democrats took back the Parliament in 1998, they rolled back some of these measures so that private schools would need to provide all the same services as public schools in order to qualify for the voucher program. Additionally, private schools receiving vouchers were prohibited from charging any extra fees, although they are not barred from turning a profit (The Swedish Model, 2008).

Invisible Limitations on Choice

One strong objection to voucher reforms in general is that equal vouchers do not imply equal choice, because preexisting disparities in geography and in social capital affect how likely parents are to exercise choice. Indeed, meaningful choice does not exist in many rural areas because schools are often so scattered that families can only realistically send their children to one school. In Sweden, families in rural areas base their enrollment decisions much more on commuting distance than on pedagogical or curricular preferences (Skolverket, 1996, as cited in Daun, 2003). Moreover, private schools in Sweden are largely located in the cities. Over one third of Sweden's municipalities, including must rural districts, do not have a single independent school (Carnoy, 1998). Thus transportation concerns are not the only obstacle limiting the choices of rural families: private schools and higher performing public schools tend to be more highly concentrated in urban areas (Lane & Murray, 1985).           

In addition to geographic location, parents' social positions affect how capable they are of taking advantage of school choice. Advocates of voucher systems often assume that less-educated parents will make just as informed decisions about where to send their children as better-educated parents (Carnoy, 1998). This assumption ignores the importance of access to information. Choosing a "good school" is a difficult, complex decision that often requires information beyond school achievement data such as test scores. Indeed, many parents rely on word of mouth, or what Holme (2002) calls "the unofficial choice market," to supplement the information they get from such data. Parents with high social capital, who are plugged into interpersonal networks in which such information is conveyed, are positioned to make better decisions. Studies from Sweden indicate that university-educated parents living in urban areas are better informed about school choice options and are more likely to take advantage of choice than are less-educated parents and parents in rural areas (Daun, 2003; NAE, as cited in Carnoy, 1998).

These invisible limitations on choice have had the effect of exacerbating existing social inequalities. In Sweden, wealthier families have tended to pull their children out of schools in diverse neighborhoods, leaving behind less privileged students in schools that, with the loss of those resources, become underfunded (Carnoy, 1998; Daun, 2003). In one case study, a public school in an area with a large immigrant population saw a 30 percent decrease in enrollments following the opening of the new independent school nearby. Most troubling, however, was the shift in the ethnic make up of the school: before the new school opened, African, Arab, and Latin-American students comprised 34 percent of the school population; after the new school opened, they comprised 52 percent (Daun). Thus the injection of market forces into the Swedish education system has resulted in increased segregation.

"The Problem of Incorrect Signals"

A second objection to voucher systems is that this tendency among wealthy parents to move their children out of schools with less privileged students undercuts a core premise of the theory behind market reforms. Voucher systems are supposed to give schools an incentive to improve their offerings in order to attract and retain student-customers. This will only occur, however, if parents select schools based on criteria that correspond to the quality of the education, such as curriculum, pedagogy, class size, teaching, and student performance. If parents make their selections based on some other factor, such as which schools are populated by the most privileged students, schools will have no incentive to improve their educational offerings (Holme, 2002). Willms and Echols (1992) refer to this as "the problem of incorrect signals":

Schools serving pupils in disadvantaged areas will be receiving incorrect signals; many of them will lose pupils to higher SES [socioeconomic status] schools despite effective teaching practices. Some high SES schools will also receive incorrect signals, because many parents are choosing these schools even though their performance is mediocre or poor. (Willms & Echols, 1992, as cited in Carnoy, 1998)

The consequence of this "problem of incorrect signals" is that vouchers ultimately fail to accomplish their goal of improving the quality of schools. Because parents choose schools based on factors unrelated to the quality of education, schools with lots of socioeconomically advantaged students can gain students and schools with lots of disadvantaged students can lose students regardless of how they rate on various school factors.

This happened in Sweden when the free market reforms were enacted. Parents sent their children to schools based on the socioeconomic status and ethnic makeup of the schools rather than based on school factors that principals and teachers could control (Daun, 2003). Tellingly, the outcome data support the claim that voucher systems do not accomplish their goal of improving schools. Studies of the Swedish voucher system provide no evidence that the program produced competition between schools, increased cost-effectiveness, or made schools more responsive to local needs (Carnoy, 1998). Studies of other voucher programs such as the one implemented in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have shown that students in private schools score higher on standardized tests than students at public schools. However, this difference vanishes after controlling for socioeconomic status, suggesting that private schools attract wealthy students but do not necessarily provide better educational experiences (Carnoy). While undoubtedly different from Sweden in social, political, and historical context, the Milwaukee case nonetheless illustrates the tenuousness of the relationship between school choice and improved educational offerings.

The Decline of Public Schools: the Swedish Exception

A third objection to school choice reforms is that resources will be siphoned out of public schools, all but ensuring that they will not be able to innovate or improve. The projection that vouchers will devastate the public education establishment was not borne out in Sweden, however (Carnoy, 1998). To understand why public schools were relatively unharmed by vouchers, it is important to examine the ways in which Sweden differs from other nations. Most notably, Sweden's famed welfare state is central to its national identity and is extremely popular among its citizens. Swedes are overwhelmingly supportive of public education (Lane & Murray, 1985), and thus vouchers have not brought on the catastrophic crisis of public education that some projected. In Chile, where private schools are held in higher esteem, public schools were significantly weakened when a voucher system was introduced (Carnoy). Thus Sweden may in some ways be considered a society that is exceptionally resistant to the effects of free market reforms.

A telling example of this Swedish exceptionalism can be seen in Swedish schools' treatment of immigrant students. Because the school choice reforms were designed to pressure schools into increasing their cost-effectiveness, many schools responded by cutting services to students who were more expensive to educate. For example, nearly a quarter of all special education teachers in Stockholm were eliminated as a consequence of the school choice reform (Carnoy, 1998). Immigrant children were spared a similar fate, however, because Sweden's national bilingual education policy guarantees home language instruction for all students. Services targeting immigrants, while undoubtedly expensive, were completely preserved. This is unlikely to occur in a country that does not have such a progressive bilingual education policy, however. The consequences of a school voucher system could be disastrous for immigrant students and other already-marginalized groups in other countries if safeguards protecting their resources are not in place.


While increased school choice would theoretically improve schools and enhance social equity, in Sweden, vouchers have accomplished neither of these goals. The first goal of improving the quality of education has been undermined by the tendency among parents to choose schools based on inappropriate factors such as the status of the enrolled students rather than factors such as pedagogy and curriculum. The second goal of furthering social equality by providing less privileged families with choices comparable to those already enjoyed by the privileged has been hampered by the fact that equal vouchers do not bestow equal choice: disparities in geography and social capital still make a difference in families' abilities to exercise choice. Finally, Sweden can in some ways be considered a best-case scenario because its long-established welfare state may have buffered some of the ill effects of the reforms. Other nations should take caution, because they may find that voucher systems in their states will result in an even more drastic erosion of educational equality.


Carnoy, M. (1998). National voucher plans in Chile and Sweden: Did privatization reforms make for better education? Comparative Education Review, 42(3), 309-337.

Daun, H. (2003). Market Forces and Decentralization in Sweden - a Threat to Comprehensiveness and Equity and an Impetus for School Development? In D. N. Plan & G. Sykes (eds.). Choosing Choice. School Choice in International Perspective, (p. 92-111). New York and London: Teachers College Press.

Holme, J. J. (2002). Buying homes, buying schools: School choice and the social construction of school quality. Harvard Educational Review, 72, 177-204.

Lane, J & Murray, M. (1985). The significance of decentralization in Swedish education. European Journal of Education, 20, 163-170.

Lundahl, L. (2002). From centralisation to decentralization: Governance of education in Sweden. European Educational Research Journal, 1(4), 625-636.

Lundahl, L. (2005). A matter of self-governance and control. European Education, 37(1), 10-25.

Lundahl, L. (2009). Sweden: Decentralization, deregulation, quasi-markets - and then what? Journal of Educational Policy, 17(6), 687-697.

Mondale, S. & Patton, S. B. (2002). School: The story of American public education. Beacon Press.

The Swedish Model: A Swedish firm has worked out how to make money running free schools. (2008, June 12). The Economist. Retrieved September 16, 2009, from


Roseanna Sommers '10 is a psychology major and educational studies minor. She wrote this paper for Lisa Smulyan's Comparative Education class in 2009. Roseanna would like to thank Professor Smulyan for encouraging her to be less timid about opening up her writing for criticism and for teaching her to embrace the revision process.