Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden’s voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.
Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”
And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.
Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.
This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.