Rethinking School Privatization in Sweden
December 18, 2013 6:49 AM   Subscribe

20 years ago, Sweden passed a series of reforms that encouraged privatization of its schools. In addition to making it easier to create new schools, the new laws made it legal for private, profit-seeking companies to open schools. For over a decade, these reforms were hailed as a market-driven success story, as market share private schools grew. Earlier this year, the bankruptcy of Sweden's largest private school operator and questions about school quality has some in Sweden rethinking its privatization experiment.
posted by snickerdoodle (27 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'll link to my previous comment on this topic.
posted by Mental Wimp at 6:52 AM on December 18, 2013


Ahead of elections next year, politicians of all stripes are questioning the role of such firms, accused of putting profits first with practices like letting students decide when they have learned enough and keeping no record of their grades.

Imagine profit-driven schools being more concerned with profit that students! I mean, shocking!
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:08 AM on December 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


I have a list of a few thinks that should not be profit driven EVER (please feel free to add to my list) I cringe when I hear people say "Well they need to run like a business" or some such. I agree they need to Account and be accountable LIKE a business but they shouldn't be profit. THEN those same people say well you HAVE To pay the people who do the work and I walk away flustered because that is not what I mean.... anyway I can rant but here is my list of things that should not make profit.

1) Schools/Education
2) Medicine/health
3) Infrastructure
4) Energy creation
5) Basic food
6) Insurance
7) Prisoner incarceration/reform
posted by mrgroweler at 7:14 AM on December 18, 2013 [27 favorites]


Obviously, the solution is to deregulate even more. Let the free market determine the correct metrics by which schools are judged. And tax cuts!!1!
posted by Thorzdad at 7:16 AM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The idea that private equity firms and large corporations would run hundreds of schools was a far cry from the individual, locally-run schools envisaged at the start.

To be less flip, this strikes me as the heart of a lot of problems with privatization and "business-friendly" rhetoric everywhere in the political process. School privatization seems like a way to create locally owned and operated schools, when it really creates schools run by large corporations that are, if anything, less responsive to local needs than the government-run institutions. Farm subsidies are sold on the image of the struggling family farm but, weirdly, seem to end up in the pockets of large agribusinesses. "Business-friendly" does not support small local "mom and pop" businesses but tends to drive them out in favor of large-scale retailers. And so on and so forth. And, i you do back such a scheme, don't be shocked to see an article on your pet project with the line:

A lax regulatory environment is also to blame.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:19 AM on December 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


It used to be possible to run enterprises on a business model without crude short-term profit being their only objective, but somehow that seems to have been lost in recent years.

This is surely a bad thing even for commercial enterprises. A good businessman used to be a man of some insight, originality and understanding; now it seems he has to be the greediest and most unimaginative bean-counter possible.
posted by Segundus at 7:25 AM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


GenjiandProust: see also the concern for the garage inventor expressed by many patent trolls.
posted by jaduncan at 7:30 AM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I know a guy from Sweden who's a very creative and technically proficient musician/programmer. He was telling me about this recently. His parents were dirt poor, but he went to the same schools as the extremely rich kids. He says it wouldn't be possible for poor kids today to follow the same path he got to take.

I thought, that is horrible and sucks for the future of those kids.

Then, I thought, wait that's been happening forever here in the US.

After that: still sucks.
posted by ignignokt at 7:57 AM on December 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


At this point, shouldn't we just assume that if there's money to be made, some rent-seeking or profit-driven corporation is going to try to make it? Of course the VC/private equity guys are going to try to fuck everyone over. That's what they do.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:06 AM on December 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Everytime I hear "xxxx should be run like a business" I have to wonder if that person has ever actually interacted with or worked for a business.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:48 AM on December 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


Of course the VC/private equity guys are going to try to fuck everyone over. That's what they do.

right, it's like saying "I had no idea I'd attract wild animals if I set food out for them"
posted by desjardins at 8:49 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The idea that profit seeking businesses can't run a school responsibly is demonstrably false. See the thousands of Montessori schools across the country as example 1. They are, for the most part, all small, locally owned for-profit businesses run by people who depend on that profit to pay their mortgages and bills.

I would argue that many religious schools are only non-profit for the tax benefits, but are mostly run like a for-profit business. They generally do a decent job of turning out educated kids.

So it's not the possibility of profit that ruins the educational process. It's something else.
posted by COD at 9:42 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the Montessori model is probably what Sweden thought it was getting, not private equity firms and educational chains overextending themselves and going bankrupt. The magic ingredient is government money, and the incentives it creates.

Vouchers are not prevalent enough in the US for Montessori schools to be attractive to Big Money. But rest assured it's watching and waiting; I've got friends working for big fancy consulting companies who are figuring out how to make it happen as we speak.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:56 AM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


It might be noted, unless I have misread the data, that very few Swedish students are in the "for profit" corporately managed free (private school)--less than 2% +/-. One in ten students are in free(private) schools and one in five of those are enrolled in the profit making schools. The vast majority of students in free/private schools are in locally sponsored schools--what the US would call charter schools. Further--there is very little difference in performance between students in public, for-profit or not for profit schools. The change in Sweden's over all educational achievement is not simply explained by the failure of corporately managed schools. There is also serious competition for students by the not for profit schools which is thought by some to have increased grade inflation and lower standards. On the other hand parents whose children are in "free" schools (versus public) are happier with their children's schools than those in public schools. Not a situation unlike the US.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:36 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The case for such schools in Sweden (and by a Swede) can be read here.

He says it wouldn't be possible for poor kids today to follow the same path he got to take.

If true, it sounds like Sweden's public schools, like those in many countries, have dropped the ball over the years. I don't see that the existence of for-profits is in itself the reason for this drop. If they're good, they will thrive. If not, they will fail.

It would have been interesting to hear what kind of hoops the Swedes demand of would be school openers. In America, there are real horror stories of union push back when even charter schools are proposed.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:43 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The idea that private equity firms and large corporations would run hundreds of schools was a far cry from the individual, locally-run schools envisaged at the start.

Isn't that the same thing that happened with charter schools here in the states? In Massachusetts, charter schools are ostensibly non-profit community organizations, but many of those organizations are just shells created so a for-profit management corporation can step in and get the contract to run the school. It seems kind of strange and logically inconsistent that a for-profit education corporation can manage a non-profit school, but somehow they do it.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 10:47 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The case for such schools in Sweden (and by a Swede) can be read here.

The case made by the "Director of Research at the Centre for Market Reform of Education and Research," a think tank advocating for market-based education solutions? Color me skeptical.

If true, it sounds like Sweden's public schools, like those in many countries, have dropped the ball over the years. I don't see that the existence of for-profits is in itself the reason for this drop. If they're good, they will thrive. If not, they will fail.

Any proof of this outcome besides "because that's how I think it works?"

It would have been interesting to hear what kind of hoops the Swedes demand of would be school openers. In America, there are real horror stories of union push back when even charter schools are proposed.

We've gone over this in prior threads, but much of the problem lies in administrative issue, due in large part to to budget cuts pushed by those advocating for market-based education solutions. Teacher's unions have a number of perfectly valid reasons--pay, hours, poor performance metrics,etc--for being wary of charter schools. Combined with the fact that there's little to no evidence that charter schools can handle what public schools can when scaled up to that level of attendance and administration, the idea of them as a universal panacea isn't on sturdy ground.
posted by zombieflanders at 11:25 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is also serious competition for students by the not for profit schools which is thought by some to have increased grade inflation and lower standards.

I live in Sweden and have two children attending Swedish schools.

There is no competition for students by schools. The principle of the law is that students can choose their school, but that schools MAY NOT choose their students.

School selection is made by parents. "Selection" by the school is made on when the student joined the queue - students being born in January having a natural advantage - geographic location (each school has a primary "capture area") and "syskon förtur" - sibling advantage; if you already have one kid in the school siblings receive preference.

There are two problems:

1) the low status of teachers manifested by low teacher salaries. There are so few university students applying for teacher education, they basically accept anyone who applies. And it shows.

2) a national curriculum which does not challenge students and makes life too easy for teachers. There is too much emphasis on socialisation and self-esteem and too little emphasis on academics. The national curriculum applies to ALL schools and there is very little ability for even a good teacher to change it. It is ridiculously easy and my wife and I have taken to teaching our kids maths and language skills at home.

So what you have is low-paid, low-skilled teachers and a rigid and undemanding curriculum.

All the stuff about "profit" and "privitisation" is a canard thrown up by the Swedish social democrats are to blame for the curriculum and whose solution is always more regulation and more taxes.
posted by three blind mice at 12:39 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is no competition for students by schools. The principle of the law is that students can choose their school, but that schools MAY NOT choose their students.

Well, I can't evaluate anything else you said, but I know for a fact that this makes no sense whatsoever. It's like saying "Customers can choose their dish soap, but dish soaps CANNOT choose their customer. Q.E.D. there is no competition for customers by dish soaps." Do you see what I mean?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:03 PM on December 18, 2013


Privatisation doesn't seem to have a good track record. The evidence increasingly seems to be against it...
posted by lucien_reeve at 1:35 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Privatisation doesn't seem to have a good track record. The evidence increasingly seems to be against it...

It has a great record if you are looking for short term profits.
posted by ryoshu at 1:48 PM on December 18, 2013


three blind mice: 1) the low status of teachers manifested by low teacher salaries. There are so few university students applying for teacher education, they basically accept anyone who applies. And it shows.

Does the new teacher certification change this at all? From here:

Introduction of teacher certification
Beginning 1 December 2013, professional certification will be required for school and primary/nursery school teachers on permanent contracts. The decision, a milestone in Swedish education policy, aims to raise the status of the teaching profession, supporting professional development and thus increasing quality in education.

posted by gucci mane at 3:41 PM on December 18, 2013


COD - trying to phrase this nicely, but do you understand how not for profit is supposed to work in the US? The status is abused left and right, but the IRS rules are there to prevent non-profits from making a profit. The employees expect to make a living - that's not the same as a for-profit business model.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:41 PM on December 18, 2013


Thanks, three blind mice, for a little context.

I dunno, I get the impression that this post is a little axe grindy, and a perfect vehicle for the regulars to ride their favorite hobby horses. I say this because the articles simply don't read all that severe or scandalous to me. It doesn't seem all that awful for a private company running schools to go bankrupt when facing dwindling enrollments. Keeping no records of grades, and letting students decide when they've learned enough certainly sounds odd to American ears, though it sounds like it's possible some important context may be missing, and even then isn't completely unheard of in my US centric experience. And finally, I get the sense from three blind mice that this development may be a result of chronic underfunding rather than privatization. Where state run schools can simply keep on going rather than fold, for profits may be funded on a possibly fixed per-head basis. Fall below the tipping point of student numbers, and the venture is no longer viable as a business. In any event, wikipedia paints a picture that looks more sanguine that the way the post is framed.

There is no competition for students by schools. The principle of the law is that students can choose their school, but that schools MAY NOT choose their students.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that while schools may not choose their students, they may certainly be able to compete for students by earning a reputation for superior results, at least on paper (grade inflation). That certainly happens here in the US with some private schools, at least.

trying to phrase this nicely, but do you understand how not for profit is supposed to work in the US? The status is abused left and right, but the IRS rules are there to prevent non-profits from making a profit. The employees expect to make a living - that's not the same as a for-profit business model.

As I understand, in the US at least, rules don't forbid a non-profit from making a profit. They restrict where that profit can go in order to remain a non-profit. Perhaps surprisingly, the restrictions may allow a non-profit to function almost identically to a for-profit for many principals involved. As you yourself say, the status can be abused easily and probably legally. Regardless, I believe that in the US most public schools aren't even run like non-profits. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:53 PM on December 18, 2013


Lesser Shew: I understand how non-profits are run. You don't understand my comment. Obtaining IRS non-profit status does not mean that the organization is actually run in a way that minimizes costs while maximizing the benefits delivered to a constituent population. There are a lot of ways to spend money in a non-profit so that the net income at the end of the year is zero. There is little to insure that the spending actually benefits somebody other than the employees of the non-profit.
posted by COD at 7:58 PM on December 18, 2013


Regardless, I believe that in the US most public schools aren't even run like non-profits. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Public school districts in the US are quasi-governmental agencies, usually locally controlled, but subject to statewide regulations as well. The school district can collect taxes and have elected or appointed boards to control them.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:05 AM on December 19, 2013


Privatisation doesn't seem to have a good track record. The evidence increasingly seems to be against it...

It has a great record if you are looking for short term profits.


Privatisation is the socio-economic equivalent of kidnapping someone, cutting out all their major organs and selling them for transplantation into aging millionaires.
posted by Grangousier at 10:16 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


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