School Choice

School Choice
amanda-caroline-uppsala
The author and her niece Amanda at Amanda’s Highschool graduation from Jensen Gymnasium, a high ranking ‘free-school’, in Uppsala, Sweden.

Calling education the civil rights issue of our time, a point many liberals have made too, President Trump in his speech to Congress Tuesday said he wants every parent to be able to send their child to any public, private, religious, charter or home school they choose, echoing ideas championed by Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, as well as the Trump administrations new secretary of education Betsy DeVos.

School choice the civil rights issue of this generation

U.S Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have also said they view school choice as a civil rights issue of this generation, believing school vouchers would level the playing field by allowing poor families to have the same right as wealthy families to send their children to the school that will best help them. In Texas, Lt. Gov Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 3, would create two separate public programs to subsidize private school tuition and home schooling, including giving parents debit cards backed by taxpayer money.

Still, this is it is not the first time the issue of school vouchers has been on the Texas Legislative agenda. School voucher bills brought up in 2013 and 2015 died and in 2013 House Speaker Joe Straus ( R-San Antonio) warned GOP senators to repeat the mistake of 2007, when a pilot school voucher bill failed due to resistance from rural republicans afraid the plan would drain money from public schools, and by proponents of the bill that declined to nominate their own school district.

Teacher organizations and Democrats have also feared the school choice proposal would provide a big tax loophole for corporations and hurt public education by siphoning tax dollars out of public schools to fund private and religious schools.

Sweden replaced government school system with vouchers in 1992

But according to the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm, Sweden, test results in public schools improved due to competition at the same time as the cost of schooling fell. And the wide scope of reform for financing primary education makes the Swedish experience particularly interesting.

In 1992 a voucher system replaced the earlier centralized financial system, where schools had a national curriculum and was the responsibility of the government. Under the new Swedish system, municipal schools and independent schools receive public funding on close to equal terms, and fulfilling certain basic requirements, all kind of schools are eligible, including religious schools and schools run by profit corporations.

An example is Wilhelm Haglund High School located in the rural municipality of Gimo in east central Sweden. Started by Swedish international company Sandvik AB, an engineering group in tooling, materials technology, mining and construction, it was the natural choice for the then 20-year old Johan Älvebrink from the small farming village of Valö. Today he is completing a Master Degree in Industrial Innovation Management at Uppsala University.

“With the increasing Swedish youth unemployment rate (20.3 % of 15-24 year olds in 2015) it was important for me to pick a high school that provided its students with a wide variety of career opportunities after graduation”, Älvebrink said.

One of them was a customized college engineering education at the University of Gävle where Johan Älvebrink received his bachelor degree.

“There is already a lack of engineers specialized in materials technology and demographic projections told us it would get worse” said Tommy Sandin of Sandvik AB. Adding that the university’s new customized materials technology program graduated 40 engineers in 2014 – about as many as the company needed.

Swedish voucher system not without problems

But the Swedish voucher system has not been without criticism. In a triennial study by the OECD published in 2013 and measuring the reading, maths and science proficiency of 15-year olds, Sweden’s overall score fell below the OECD average in 2009 compared to 2000, when Swedish pupils performed a lot better than those in most other countries. Money is not the problem. Sweden’s spending on eduction is among the highest in the world according to OECD, only the United States and Britain spend more money as percent of GDP than Sweden.

And while some blame the poor results on the period the Social Democratic Party was in charge or on poorly paid teachers, Marie Björkman, an Administrator with Täby Municipality, a wealthy suburb north of Stockholm, thinks the problem would be helped by more follow-up and control from government and municipalities, and by better management with a clear idea of the specific strategy for their school.

“When my daughter was to start high-school, we got a lot of marketing material from different schools” Björkman said.  “The school we settled on promised it would prepare students for higher education with an international angle, with the idea that students had class half days and spent the rest of the day studying by them selves – similar to university studies. This required independent and self disciplined highschool students, but in reality it became the choice of many students tired of studying and the school finally had to close its doors. So we had to put her in another school, but it was a great change with excellent results”

Texas House education chief declares school choice bill DOA

What the future of school choice in Texas holds is difficult to predict. Tuesday the top educational policy officer in the Texas House, Dan Huberty (R-Houston) said he and his colleagues in the House debated the issue at length and determined that vouchers would reduce school accountability by putting public dollars in private schools that are not subject to the same rules and also would distract from the more pressing challenge of fixing the Texas school finance system.

Copyright 2017, Caroline Calais. All rights reserved