The politics of the so called Third Way has been a costly mistake for Sweden. The cost cannot be estimated in purely economic terms even if the figures in themselves are frightening enough.
From a long-term perspective we must conclude that the social and cultural damage that has been done to civil society has put us in a far more difficult predicament than the present budget deficit or the level of unemployment – although those problems are also of great concern, and without doubt interconnected with the social problems.
The welfare state in the Swedish version has gradually eroded the ethics of civil society. Support from the public sector in a wide variety of areas has become something which is taken for granted, something which is even considered a right. Not only that. You can hear people complaining about having to care for their relatives and their family.
The elderly, for example, are considered primarily a burden by many. It is considered uncivilised that you should have to take care of your grandmother, when really quite the opposite is true. The welfare state has produced a very cold and anonymous society where caring has been socialised to an extreme degree. Common decency has become an option, not a necessity or something obviously right, because the far-ranging activities of the state have made individual love of your neighbour seem superfluous.
The ethics of the civil society cannot in the long run survive if the structures of the civil society are not allowed to make themselves useful.
Now Sweden must make a transition from a society of entitlement for the citizen to a society of empowerment of the citizen. That is a formidable challenge. The Moderate Party strives for a social revolution.
We want to establish the foundations of a society where everyone is needed and where people are enterprising. Not just in the sense that they are active participants in the productive sector. But also in the more general sense of the word – we want people to be empowered in everyday life situations – caring and providing for themselves and for other people, shouldering the responsibilities and mastering the possibilities.
How can we achieve this goal?
Well, obviously a number of reforms are necessary: lower taxes, deregulation, privatisation, the breaking up of public monopolies et cetera. But still – will it be possible to restore that which to a large extent has been lost?
We can get an idea about the possibilities by studying what has happened after the reforms in the field of education that the non-socialist government coalition has introduced.
The idea of mass-production, expressed in Henry Ford’s words that ”you can buy my car in any colour you want, as long as it’s black” has until recent years also charachterized schools and educational policies. This ment standardisation, inflexibility and uniformity. Moreover, it also led to a hierarchical organisation where the highest level in the hierarchy – the state government – controls the entire process, through a financial governing system where each individual subject and activity has it’s own specific grant.
The private sector in education was practically eliminated during this process. When reforms were introduced, private schools were down to a share less than 1 percent of pupils.
Now, let me give you a short description of the contents of the reforms and let me also share with you our experiences so far and finally tell you something about what our long-run objectives actually were, when we decided to introduce what often are described as the biggest reforms concerning choice in the western world.
The reforms are really quite simple. They consist of two major sets of rights.
First, we have protected in law the right to choose whatever school parents want for their children. They can choose any public school in the municipality, or in any other municipality or they can choose a private school.
The second set of rules concern funding, that is the voucher system. In the Swedish school model, private and public schools are eligible for public funding on the same grounds. To be eligible for public funding, every school needs to be approved by the national agency for education.
The requirements for such an approval are the existence of an approved curriculum and certain basic values, such as no racial or religious discrimination. Furthermore, the schools have to accept that their outcome will be monitored and evaluated by the national evaluation system. In serious cases, the approval can be withdrawn on the basis of bad quality or results in national evaluation.
If there is such an approval, the private school has by law the right to the same degree of public funding as comparable public schools. This right is fulfilled through a voucher, that guarantees a pupil – whatever school she chooses – a sum representing at least 85 percent of the average cost of a student of the same age in the public schools in the municipality. By setting the voucher to only 85 percent, at the same time as the law restricts the private school’s rights to tuition-fees, so that they are not allowed to charge families for services that you get free in the public schools, we are also of course creating incentives for more effective and less expensive schools.
There are many reasons for school choice. One of the most important is the ambition to move the balance of power in schools, from the relationship between state and local bureaucracies, to the relationship between the individual school and families. That way we can also foster a more active involvement of parents and families in education.
The long-run objective is to change the culture in the school, from one where families are treated as passive consumers of education and school is a place where you park your children at the age of six or seven and then collect the result some ten years later, to a culture where schools are a support-force to families in their responsibility for upbringing and educating their children.
Such a movement of the essential field of force requires that families have a right – and hence a responsibility – to make decisions and choices. And this requires that families are empowered and get muscles to demand, decide and involve. This is why the existence of ”exit” is so essential.
As a result of the reforms concerning choice and especially the voucher-system, tuition-fees in private schools were abolished or drastically reduced. So with a share of one percent of the schools and no or quite modest tuition-fees, it seemed obvious that the existing private schools would be filled fairly soon. That was one thing, but another thing was whether we really would see an increase in the number of new schools as a result of these reforms.
We were unsure of this, because in Sweden there is no living tradition or culture when it comes to starting new private schools. The entrepreneurial and free enterprise tradition is generally week in education and health-care, since these areas in practice have been government monopolies.
For a generation or two we have learned that government takes care of us and solves our problems, as long as we just fulfill our obligations and pay our taxes. Hence, parents and families are not especially accustomed to making decisions and choices when it comes to education, at least not in primary education. Furthermore, modern Sweden lacks the kind of civic networks that often start and runs private schools in other countries.
Therefore, the crucial question was: Can you invent a civic society when you have so methodically and successfully discouraged it?
Well, the answer appears to be yes. The number of private schools has during the last year doubled and the growth continues at an accelerating rate. Right now, a new private school is being started every fourth day.
Botanists study the land after a forest fire with special interest; how and when will the flora return? In what order will different species return to the burned land? In the same way will a closer look at the new private schools – and their different profiles – tell us something about the return of a civil society.
The first wave of new schools were denominational schools started and run by churches. The reason is quite evident. Churches already had sufficient infrastructure and networks. Furthermore, churches have a strong tradition and interest in matters concerning children’s education and upbringing. Also, it could often be the case that you find the strongest alienation and dissatisfaction with public schools among religious families. Now, after an initial boom, this first wave has slowed down. The potential for confessional schools is limited in a country where relatively few people have strong religious convictions.
The second wave, which started a few months later, consists typically of schools with a pedagogical ideology – primarily the theories of Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori – and of schools with a non-Swedish language – primarily Finnish. Just as the first wave, the second could rely on an existing infrastructure and strong networks, if not as homogenous and strong as the religious networks.
But during the very last year we have also seen a third wave of private schools. The motive for these is neither religious nor pedagogical and they are not ethnic. the typical school in this third wave is a small rural village school, taken over by parents when the local authorities wanted to close it down. Among these new schools you can fin some of the most interesting schools we have today, not only from an educational point of view but also for what they mean to their community.
The economies of scale in primary education are exaggerated and they are frequently outweighed by growing social- and transportation costs. On the other hand, we have often underestimated the importance of a school for the civic society and the survival of a community. In fact, the school is often more important than the railway station or the post office.
What these schools have done is often to put a slumbering community on its feet. Neighbours who did not even know each others names, have started to cooperate in a common task – to run their own school. A languishing community has discovered a common cause – to show the world that their school deserves to live and that it can be run better at lower costs.
And i do not think I speculate too much in assuming that neighbours who have shared this responsibility soon enough will also share other responsibilities in their community. When they have learned that what happens in their neighbourhood is up to themselves and no one else, they will start acting that way even in areas other than education.
In this third wave we can really say that it has been proven; a civil society could not only be abolished, it can also be revived.
What we have not seen yet, however, is the fourth wave of new schools, consisting of teachers and principals who want to run their own businesses. We might just have to wait for that wave, entrepreneurial talents have never been especially encouraged in these professions. But I am convinced that it will happen.
But already after a year we are experiencing the third wave, and we can confirm that choice in schools actually does foster a civic society. This observation is in my opinion also the single most important aspect of choice. I hope I am excused if this sounds melodramatic; but let me justify this by raising the question: What is the ultimate threat to a decent society, if we exclude the hopefully less likely threats from war, starvation or tyranny?
The answer is inevitably the disintegration of the most fundamental conditions for civilisation and decency in society. This means a society where families cease to exist, with a growing number of teenage pregnancies and absentee fathers. This is a society where any business and any daily activity are surpassed by the threat of crime, violence and drugs.
And it is a society where life mainly consists of the struggle to stay alive another day. There is almost a complete dependence on welfare and government subsidies. Empowerment, the most basic human drive – that of being able to control your destiny – does not exist.
In such a society one could say that civilisation in some sense of the word has ceased to exist. And such societies do exist. We can find them in the most depressing areas of USA and we can see these tendencies growing in most western countries.
What is even worse, we know few cures against this disease. Spending money has had either no effect, or – by creating distorted incentives – has had a counterproductive effect. But from this depressing experience of policies we know one exception. Parental involvement has been shown to foster civic values and networks and this involvement has become established as a result of choice, family responsibility and the existence of exit.
Of course choice is no nostrum – such things do not exist in politics. But the important point is that those who thought that the right to choose in education is a luxury for the already well-off, have turned out to be wrong.
This is becoming more and more evident. Choice is actually the most powerful instrument for restoring civic society. Thereby this also concerns one of the most important challenges we have to face in order to save a decent society.