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Sweden: No More Christian Schools by Sven R. Larson

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Sweden: No More Christian Schools

In a startling reversal of the country’s modest but working school-choice system, the Swedish government has proposed a ban on the opening of new faith-based schools. Existing schools with a religious profile will be allowed to continue to operate on an as-is basis.

The ban is a clumsy yet much-needed crackdown on Islamic extremism in private schools. As one example, a business called Islamic Schools of Sweden has been accused of teaching extremist Islamism and of propagating “a degrading view of women.” Other Islamic schools have been accused of siphoning taxpayers’ money off to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Notably, no Christian school in Sweden has ever been accused of similarly illicit and untoward activities. Yet, out of fear of being called “bigots” or “racists,” the Swedish government is aiming to put a blanket ban in place where there will be no new schools of any faith. This restriction is reminiscent of the educational oppression that Christians face in Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. 

The proposed ban has not gone into effect yet and likely won’t pass the current parliament, but that could change on a whim if the incumbent socialist government wins the election in September. 

In addition to doing damage to the rights of parents of faith, the ban would also do harm to the Swedish school-choice system per se. Officials of the governing social-democrat party have not limited their criticism to faith-based schools: they are almost more hostile to schools that are run on a for-profit basis. 

Most private schools in Sweden are operated as corporations, a fact that makes the growing chorus of profit critics all the more ominous. In 2018, the magazine Skolvärlden, published by national teachers’ union, claimed that “the four largest private-school corporations” had made more than €300 million over a four-year period. This was directly mirrored, the magazine claimed, in lower salaries for teachers in private schools.

In December last year, Lina Axelsson Kihlbom, incumbent minister of education and a surgically altered natural man, claimed that he was “angered” by the fact that some private schools were making profits. On July 3rd this year, Kihlbom was joined by Tobias Baudin, secretary general of the governing social democrats, in an op-ed for the daily news outlet Aftonbladet where they promised to put an end to both faith-based and for-profit schools. 

If they get to keep those promises, Sweden may be at the beginning of the end of its already-restrictive school-choice model.

Contrary to what is often said, Sweden does not have a genuine school-choice system. While parents have the right to choose, their choices are strictly limited by government; it is not the case—as some Swedish politicians have been suggesting—that parents have a virtually unlimited range of options. On the contrary, according to current school-choice law, local governments and school boards have wide discretion to deny an application to open a new school; in 2021, half of all applications to open or expand a school got tossed out.

In fact, the process for starting a private school in Sweden is far from simple. The National School Inspection Board has the final say in whether a private school may or may not open, but its decision is preceded by detailed scrutiny. The founders of a school are held to standards comparable to those of board members and executives of publicly traded corporations. These standards are applied regardless of whether a school will be run as a non-profit entity or a corporation (let alone a publicly traded one). 

To some degree, this scrutiny is reasonable, given that private schools are funded by tax-paid vouchers. There have been a few cases over the years where private schools have not been able to sustain their operations, or where the National School Inspection Board has revoked the license for curricular content reasons. 

What is not reasonable is the next phase of government scrutiny. The national agency solicits formal opinions on the application from the city where the school is to be located. It also contacts the school board in question, and possibly school boards in other municipalities. In the case of an upper secondary school, which in Sweden often cuts across multiple school districts, all the school boards that can be deemed affected by the new private school, will be invited to share their opinion.

Suppose, e.g., that I wanted to start an upper secondary school in Östersund, which is located in the county of Jämtland. Once I pass the first phase of scrutiny by the government, my business plan for the school is sent out to the school boards of all the eight municipalities in Jämtland. They now get to assess whether or not my school will in any way interfere with the educational choices of students under their jurisdiction. 

The reason for the involvement of all school districts in the county lies in how Swedish upper secondary education is organized. The schools offer “programs” that students commit to from the start. There are programs in, e.g., the sciences, social studies, humanities, and basic business administration. 

Since many rural schools are too limited in their resources to maintain all programs, some regional schools serve as back-ups to guarantee students from rural areas full access to all programs mandated under national law. For this reason, the rural school boards get to have a say in whether or not I would be allowed to open my private school. If even one of them says that my school would likely have a negative impact on the ability of their students to access all the upper-secondary programs mandated under law, that school district gets to deny me the license to open my school. 

In short: government gets to protect itself against competition. 

With this protection in place, government has managed to limit school choice throughout the Swedish school system. According to statistics from the National School Inspection Board, about 30% of high school students in Sweden attend a private school. This is roughly twice as high as the number for lower grades, and the explanation is the non-competition requirement: since private schools are not allowed to compete in any essential way with public schools, their very raison d’être is in curricular specialization.

Yet, despite the relatively modest rate at which school choice is utilized by parents, the socialist government in Sweden is determined to put an end to the growth of faith-based schools. Back in April, the Ministry of Education published a so-called proposition—a formal legislative bill sponsored by the prime minister and her cabinet—that would introduce a ban on the licensing of any new school based on religious values.

As mentioned, the reason is that some religiously profiled schools have failed to live up to the government’s standards. Explains the proposition:

Upon inspection, it has been established that some schools with religious orientation fail to live up to prevailing standards … It has been determined that some of these failures are of a serious nature. To mention one example from the National School Inspection Board’s 2021 annual report, [schools] have reduced the content of classes in personal exercise and biology. 

They also note that some schools have refused to provide sex-ed classes. In a country where disturbing, sexually explicit material is distributed to four-year-olds in government-run kindergarten (caution—graphic images!), it is hardly surprising that the national government wants all school kids to be indoctrinated accordingly. 

Another point of criticism, more understandable from a civilized viewpoint, has been differentiation in educational standards for girls and boys. Some classes have been based on ’confessional grounds’ rather than ‘scientific standards.’ 

There are also allegations in the Swedish government’s proposition that faith-based schools contribute to ethnic and racial segregation. The reason, it is said, is that confessional schools are located in areas dominated by immigrants. 

It is to solve these problems (real or perceived) that the government wants to ban all new faith-based schools. Thankfully, the response has been stern, as exemplified by a report from the Swedish Christian School Council, an advocacy group for Christian schools of all denominations. They do not mince words explaining what is really behind the proposed ban; government, they say, creates

generalized ties between religiously based schools and violent extremism. … To ban Christian schools in order to go after Islamist extremism is neither logical nor proportionate in terms of regulatory enforcement. 

Then they put the proposed ban on faith-based schools in the following context:

Sweden is already extreme from a global viewpoint with its generally applied, tight regulation of religion in school. Now the Ministry [of Education] wants to take this Swedish extremism to yet another level. Today, it is not possible to start Christian schools in the following countries: Saudi-Arabia, Cuba, North Korea, Libya and Gambia. Our government wants to put us in some quite interesting company!

Similarly pointed criticism, though not quite as flavorful, was published by the Institute for Human Rights (IHR), whose purpose it is to “promote the defense of human rights in Sweden.” In their commentary, the IHR explains that the proposed ban of faith-based schools

constitutes a general and disproportionate limitation of the right to education and the right to religious freedom, as these rights are expressed in international law on human rights. 

In line with what the Swedish Council of Christian Schools points out, the IHR also explains that the problems identified by the government’s own proposal—such as inadequate curricular standards and gender discrimination—will not be solved by a blanket ban on new faith-based schools. To reinforce their point on this matter, they refer to Section 2 of the European Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Section 3 of the latter explains that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

With this looming threat to faith-based schools, it is a given that educational entrepreneurs will think twice before investing in a new school in Sweden. Since government has declared its hostility to both faith-based schools and schools that are operated for profit, there is not much that those entrepreneurs can do. 

Furthermore, since they are not allowed to compete with public schools, a ban on schools of faith removes a big reason why a school would be approved by the local school boards. The possibility of a ban on for-profit schools also means that savvy investors willing to bet their money on unique school projects, will be discouraged from even trying. 

Since the Swedish government is openly showing its hostility toward school choice, perhaps Swedes who want to explore educational opportunities for their kids and for entrepreneurship, may want to try Denmark instead. Unlike Sweden, they actually have a genuine school-choice system in place—and there are no threats against it from the political sphere. 

According to a report from the Danish Labor Movement’s Economic Council, only Britain, Spain, and Belgium have a higher share of kids in private schools than Denmark; the Danish share is on par with that of Hungary and noticeably higher than Sweden. Part of the reason is in the country’s educational freedom; for one, private schools in Denmark are not obliged to follow the national curriculum. The Ministry for Children and Education makes clear that:

A free [independent] primary school can choose to adopt the Common Goals for elementary schools. If the school chooses to adopt the Common Goals, it shall announce this on its website. If a free primary school has not clearly stated its own goals for teaching on its website, the Common Goals apply.

In other words, unlike Sweden, private schools in Denmark are not bound by the national curriculum. They must provide for general, broadly defined educational goals, but they can design their own curricula. They also are not curtailed by the government’s own desire to rid itself of competition. 

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.