In the wake of President Obama's education speech last week, a few proponents of school vouchers are suggesting that the old sawhorse shouldn't be left off the reform table. The New York Times is featuring a video op-ed by Pacific Research Institute fellow Lance Izumi promoting Sweden's voucher program as a model for the United States. In Sweden, "parties of the left, center, and right all support the country's universal voucher system," Izumi says, "which has effectively defeated the status quo." Conservatives like this example. "Even in Sweden!" they exclaim, "socialists" support "school choice!"
But are American voucher proponents being honest in their support for Sweden's program? In short, not really: The Swedish program doesn't look anything like any voucher system in existence in the United States, or even any voucher proposal. The American idea of vouchers entails giving parents cash, usually up to a few thousand dollars, to send their children to local private schools instead of to failing public schools. In D.C., Milwaukee, and other cities that have experimented with vouchers, the vouchers are worth way too little to help poor families afford independent private prep schools; what they are really used for is to subsidize inner city parochial schools. And research clearly shows that students using vouchers perform no better academically than their socio-economically similar peers in public schools.
The Swedish system, on the other hand, looks a lot more like the American idea of a public charter school. The schools participating in the voucher program are managed by private, sometimes for-profit operators, but are prohibited from charging tuition. That means that poor students can enter lotteries to attend the same schools as rich students, without worrying about a gap between the value of a voucher and the cost of tuition. The voucher -- which converts into cold, hard government cash -- is the only entrance fee. It's a totally different theory.