Sweden is often portrayed as the epitome of a perfect social-democratic
society. Israeli media and politicians love to cite Sweden as an egalitarian and
socialist model that works, achieving economic growth along with social
Sweden performs exceptionally well according to the “Better
Life Index” published by the OECD, outranking Israel in almost all categories,
including income per capita, housing conditions, life expectancy, environment,
life satisfaction and education.
In education, Sweden received a score of
8.1 out of 10 while Israel scored 4.9. On average Swedes are more educated than
Israelis (18.9 years vs. 15.5 for Israel), perform better on international
standardized tests, and the average difference in results between the top 20
percent and lowest 20% income classes is much less marked than in Israel,
suggesting that the Swedish model provides a more equal access to highquality
education than the Israeli one.
So how is it that the Swedes succeed in
educating all their children better and at the same time attaining greater
equality of opportunity through education? It is true that Sweden spends more
public money than Israel per pupil; however, Israeli households pay much more
than the Swedes. Education expenditures not covered by the government were 22%
of the total expenditure on education in Israel and less than 3% in Sweden.
According to OECD statistics, taking into account public and private
expenditures on education (not including R&D expenses), Sweden spends
approximately 8% more per student than Israel.
Could an 8% increase of
public spending on education in Israel bring us to the Swedish level of
achievement? Most probably not; unless we follow the Swedish example and adopt a
nationwide system of school vouchers, as Sweden did in 1992.
VOUCHERS, also called education vouchers, are based on a simple idea developed
by economist Milton Friedman, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic
Sciences, and his wife Rose. Each parent gets a voucher (for all intents and
purposes, a check) issued by the government, equivalent to the average tuition
cost, which can be used to pay any school parents choose. Parents can send their
children to the public or private school of their choice.
The Swedes were
compelled to reform their school system; it had been in decline since the 1970s,
both in term of student achievement and parent satisfaction. As is still the
case in Israel, the main reason for the poor reckoning was the lack of choice in
education. Only the very wealthy, who could afford to pay the high tuition of
private schools, had any choice in the education of their
Although it may sound like a liberal idea, the adoption of the
voucher program in Sweden was based on the Scandinavian philosophy of social
justice and equality. They felt that it was unfair that only the most
economically well-off families had a choice in education. The school voucher
program, by giving every Swede the freedom to choose a school, enabled the
creation of a market for education.
New private schools were created,
owned by private companies or by not-for-profit organizations and foundations,
and today 16% of Swedish primary schools are private, as are 48% of the high
schools. The teachers are employed and paid by the schools, as any employee of
the private sector would be paid. They negotiate their salaries based on their
skills as educators; they can be fired if they don’t perform or advance on the
pay scale if they perform well.
Competition between schools led to
innovation in both private and public schools, improving the way subjects are
taught and helping increase pupils’ achievement. In fact, the Swedish cities
with the most competition between schools (measured as the ratio of private
schools to public schools) are the best-performing cities.
Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl confirmed this result in a study based on a
nationwide sampling. They found “that the main part of the achievement effect
(higher students’ scores) is due to more competition in the school sector,
forcing schools to improve their quality.”
WHILE THIS idea may still
sound extremely controversial in Israel, it is a non-issue in Sweden, where
everyone supports the voucher system, which succeeded by introducing competition
and common sense to education in Sweden, giving it one of the best educational
systems in the world.
In Israel, support for such a reform would most
certainly come from young couples. In a survey conducted by Dahaf on behalf of
the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies in 2011, 56% of Israelis under 35
were found to believe that the quality of public education has deteriorated in
recent years, and 52% of them supported a school voucher program in which the
state education budget would be distributed among parents, who would choose and
fund their child’s school.
We must hope that our new Knesset members will
have the courage and the ambition to reform our schools for the sake of our
children and the future of our country. Only a drastic reform similar to the
Swedish one can save us from becoming an undereducated country. We, the People
of the Book, owe that to ourselves and to our future generations.
writer is the director of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS).