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 equality.

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.

SCHOOL 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 children.

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.

Economists 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.

The writer is the director of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS).

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