Voucher scheme design and democratic culture in Sweden, by John P. Myers and M. Najeeb Shafiq

photo by Flickr user Sara

photo by Flickr user Sara


Schooling systems have long been central to maintaining and building healthy democratic cultures. Schools are significant sites where children from diverse ethnic and social groups learn to interact, adopt civic identities, and acquire intercultural skills that are essential to good citizenship. These attitudes and skills contribute to social cohesion, an essential element for healthy democracies that must be renewed each generation.

However, the central role of schools in building social cohesion faces challenges. In particular, the ability to opt out by choosing an alternative to the public system—including private, parochial and, more recently, charter schools—can lead to the sorting and segregation of children by social groups. Many scholars consider such market-based reform trends to be threats to the democratic culture that schools were once championed for creating., Scholars suggest that rather than building a democratic culture, such policies support business interests in lieu of citizenship. Assessing educational reforms for their impact on democracy is particularly relevant in the current educational policy climate that favors practices potentially antithetical to civic education.

Our statistical study examines the compelling case of Sweden, the world’s best known social democracy, which in 1992 adopted a policy reform that was traditionally supported by libertarians: a nation-wide educational voucher. We ask whether Sweden’s adoption of the voucher policy negatively affected the nation’s celebrated democratic culture. Existing research has generated mixed findings on vouchers’ impact in Sweden. We added to this literature by investigating the impact of the Swedish voucher scheme on a fundamental democratic goal of schooling, social cohesion, measured as civic attitudes of students toward ethnic minorities and immigrants.

For at least two reasons, we initially suspected that the expansion of the Swedish voucher scheme would be accompanied by a decline in social cohesion. First, voucher programs in other countries typically have been associated with ethnic and socioeconomic segregation. Thus, we expected social cohesion to fall under the voucher scheme because a smaller share of students would interact with ethnically and socioeconomically diverse peers. Second, although the Swedish voucher scheme requires private schools to follow the same curricular framework as public schools, they operate independently in many respects and are not held to the same level of accountability. If a larger share of students attended private schools that did not teach civics as comprehensively, we would expect to find a decline in social cohesion.

Contrary to our expectations, we did not find evidence of decline in social cohesion from 1999 to 2009. Several of our findings suggest that national democratic culture mediated the way that the voucher plan was taken up in the Swedish school system. In particular, three factors contributed to the preservation of social cohesion: teacher unions, parental preferences, and social programs for immigrants. Each of these factors influenced the voucher scheme towards a more equitable and democratic design that supported positive attitudes toward ethnic minorities and immigrants and prevented the kind of segregation that is typically observed in voucher programs in other societies. Ultimately, we argue that the complexities of policy borrowing and implementation can be better understood when considered in relation to democratic societal values, especially as they are practiced in the school system. In conclusion, we found that a democratically enacted voucher did not compromise Sweden’s status as one of the world’s most cohesive societies.


Najeeb Shafiq, PhD, is associate professor of education, economics, and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. As an education economist, he uses advanced quantitative methods to study the social benefits of education, incentive-based educational reform, and educational privatization.

John P. Myers, PhD, is associate professor of social science education in the School of Teaching and Learning at Florida State University. His research examines the consequences of globalization for how youth learn and know about the complexities of the modern world.

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