Education Reform Failure For-Profit Fraud International Vouchers

Sweden and the Damage Done by Free-Market Reforms

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Larry Cuban turned his blog over to retired Swedish teacher Sara Hjelm, a reader of his blog, who took the opportunity to warn American readers about the dangers of the free-market reforms adopted in Sweden.

Sweden adopted the “reforms” in 1992, allowing families to choose any school, public or private, and send their child there with his/her taxpayer dollars. It is the “backpack full of cash” theory behind the demand for school choice, as advocated here by Betsy DeVos and Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform. The voucher system has led to a growing industry of private, for-profit schools, called “free schools.” Two of the companies that run “free schools” are listed on the stock exchange. They are comparable to our charter schools.

Hjelm writes:

The huge private for profit school companies exist on all these levels, competing for student vouchers. Largest part is in the upper secondary where more than 30% of students today attend such a free school. By cherry-picking “easy” students through aggressive marketing to parents (we offer good behavior, academic excellence, high grades, etc.) they attract students that are more or less self going and enable a profit for shareholders or owner consortiums by keeping wages low, having large groups, substituting some teaching for on-line learning, employing teachers from abroad on short term contracts and more hours of teaching, etc. 

As a result real student achievements and school climate are mediocre, about the same as in municipal schools and with a considerable grade inflation to that according to PISA and national tests. Students from municipal upper secondary schools have a slightly lower grade point average than students from free upper secondary schools, but still generally show higher performance and less dropouts during the first year of higher education.

There are also plenty of examples of parents told that their child does not really fit in, that the support needed is not available and they should seek a more suitable school. With a queue system for admission on compulsory level, where you can put your baby in line at birth, they keep all groups filled. And being private businesses they only have to share whatever follow up data they choose due to international business and stock market legislation of secrecy. If a school is not as profitable as expected it can simply close down with short notice or apply for bankruptcy when as much monetary resources as possible have been moved somewhere else in the organization. Stranded students are the municipality’s responsibility. The risk is minimal. At least for now.

She recognizes the important role of venture capital in the expansion of the publicly-subsidized “free schools,” and notes that it has led to persistent cost-cutting.

What matters most in this free-market system, she concludes, is profit, not education, not students.

This is a very worthwhile read.

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