Cloudy with a Chance of Swedish Meatballs

The totally true, tragicomic and almost-certain-to be-ignored cautionary tale of Sweden’s 30 year experiment with privatizing education…

Pack your bags, reader, and prepare to stow your winebox in the overhead compartment. We’re headed on an adventure of the international variety. Our destination: Sweden—the nation that brought us free love, ready-to-assemble furniture and aquavit—is also home to a 30-year-experiment with skola privatisering, or as we call it, excellence enhancement through the magic of the market. How are things going in Sweden these days? Funny you should ask…

First stop on our Swedish adventure: a little trip down memory lane, or minneslanen as they say in Uppsula. Way back in the 1990’s Swedish parents were given vouchers to pay for the school of their choice. In other words, the krona followed the child. And just to make sure that choosy parents had enough choice to choose from, the Swedes allowed private schools for the first time and allowed the schools to make a profit. Fast forward to the future, otherwise known as today, and more than 25% of secondary students in Sweden attend schools that are publicly-funded but privately run. In other words, they are högskola och karriär redo, which Google Translate assures me translates into *college and career ready.*

What do you mean the Swedes don’t have a word for edupreneur?
The bold experiment was quickly proclaimed an unabashed success—by advocates of school choice in the US. And they weren’t the only ones excited by Sweden’s transformation from a highly-regulated education system to one freed from the one-size-fits-all-shackles that had been shackling choice and innovation for so long. While Swedish (like French) may lack a word for edupreneur, Sweden turn out to have an abundance of these. Reader: the edupreneurs rushed in like high tide in a fjord, and faster than the Swedes could ask *why are so many of our schools now owned by private equity companies and corporations?* private equity firms and corporations seemed to have acquired a near monopoly on excellence and innovation. 

The Uppsula Academy for Excellence and Innovation
But wait, there’s more! Sweden’s new privately-run private schools also introduced lots of cool new corporate practices like *performance bonuses* for school marketers (colloquially known as teachers) and amped up their *community outreach*—like running ads for individual schools in Stockholm’s subway systemBest of all, the businesses that run so many of Sweden’s schools are themselves held accountable to the wisdom of the marketplace, including the wisdom that tells money-losing corps to close their doors, even if students are waiting outside of them. Earlier this year 11,000 Swedish students were suddenly deprived of excellence because Danish private equity firm Axcel decided to pull the plug on the corporation that owned their schools. Förstå? Good—because we’re moving on!

öh nö you didn’t!
First a trick question: what time is it, reader? If you answered *Central European Time,* good for you, as you recalled that we have not yet boarded our imaginary return flight from Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. Alas, you would be wrong as the correct answer is *data time.* If you are playing along at home, please bring out your official PISA play-at-home-score card. Now search through your flag-themed game pieces until you find the Scandinavian cross. Last but not least, tumble your Swedish flag down through the international rankings. How far down? 

No other country has fallen so abruptly as Sweden in maths over a ten-year span. Overall, not one of the other 32 countries included in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey has seen its students take such a beating in their studies. 

Welcome aboard Air Choice
Sweden performed SO POORLY on the latest international tests that the country is now rethinking its bold experiment in choice-i-fication. You see, something totally unpredictable, unforeseen and unexpected happened when Sweden created a market of schools: as the best students flocked to certain schools, vast gulfs of inequality opened up between schools. I’ll give the last word to the head of the Lärarförbundet, otherwise known as the Swedish teachers union. 

“We’re losing ground on all fronts and find ourselves in a very precarious position,” union head Eva-Lis Sirén said in a statement, adding that Sweden’s results had “sunk like a stone”.”We’re losing not only those who are having a hard time, but also high-performing students.A lack of equality is the price Sweden has had to pay as a result of free school choice. That’s a price we can never accept.” 

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  1. “Sweden performed SO POORLY on the latest international tests that the country is now rethinking its bold experiment in choice-i-fication.”

    This is where we need to sit up and pay attention. Will the Swedes be able to lift themselves out of the hole they’re in? Or will they, like us, keep digging? If they do get out and turn things back around, how will they do it? Can it be done here?

  2. That Sweden sank like a stone in test scores is sweet payback for naive faith in the magic of the marketplace but only because the educating for krona group is so smitten with singular data points. But Axel walking away from thousands of students illustrates the care bear principle in spades… A pox on them.

  3. Bush League stuff. I contend we are the world champions in ignoring the obvious. While the rest of the country thinks charters, privatization, and choice are unique, new, magical bullets with plenty of promise, Minnesota has been doing it for Three+ decades.

    We had universally transported, unlimited school choice. For example, in one large urban district 89% of the kids rode buses, even though most lived within walking distance of a school. We are also the home of the charter school. It has also been going on for decades.

    The results are increased racial isolation. Increased inequality. Schools with 2000+ kids that are 95% non-white, 90% poverty (in Minnesota remember). We don’t have to even go to Europe to get decades of data for how the unintended consequences of choice and market theories destroy schools and our education system.

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