This year, a total of 767 applications to open free schools were received, which leads many to question the motives of companies to open so many schools.
By Emily Dickinson
The revision of the school law that comes into action in July will tighten up the Swedish education system, but won’t address what many people feel is the greatest problem of all; the increase of companies opening free schools, and making profits.
“We are in a difficult situation now,” said Mikael Damberg, deputy chair of committee on education for Socialdemokraterna(The Social Democratic Party), the main opposition party.
“We have the companies that are making profits, so it’s much harder for politicians to say they are going to stop this, because then they will be shutting down schools, and it’s a political risk.”
In February, education minister Jan Björklund ofFolkpartiet liberalerna (The Liberal People’s Party) came to the conclusion that for many free schools, profit takes precedence over education quality.
“There have been scandals because some schools don’t give students what they are entitled to,” said Damberg. He explained that because the current school law is so vague, there have been free schools with no library or gymnasium for fitness because there are no specifications in the current law.
The government will tighten standards to make sure that if at least a company is profiting from schools, the students are receiving a quality education.
The law isn’t enough
“I don’t think the new school law is enough, it says nothing about profits in free schools,” said Anders Thoré, political advisor for education from Vänsterpartiet (The Left Party). “There are money disappearances, and children don’t get the benefits from taxes; we think only not-for-profit companies should be able to open schools.”
Kunskapsskolan, one of the biggest free school owners in Sweden, owns a total of 33 schools with about 10,000 students.
“I see no problem that schools that deliver quality education also make a profit,” said owner Cecilia Carnefeldt.
She explained that the last investigation showed free schools on average have a profit margin of five per cent, which only covers the costs of starting up the school.
The role of the inspectorate
Skolinspektionen (The School Inspectorate) is in charge of granting companies the permission to open a school using a variety of criteria, but there is no way to know if the company is just opening the school as purely a way to make profits, explained investigator Malin Jern.
Skolinspektionen can look at the economic aspects of the company, such as if they have had problems with salaries in the past and how much profit they make yearly. But there’s nothing they can do with that information.
“If they want to make a profit, they can do it,” she said. “We can’t do anything about it unless the law is changed.”
The other side of the coin
Magnus Johansson, communications officer at Friskolornas Riksförbund doesn’t think that companies profiting from schools is a real problem, because the benefits of the system outweigh the negative.
He said it’s companies like Kunskapsskolan that make it possible for so many students to have the ability to choose their own school.
“I believe the Swedish free school and school choice system is excellent from a student perspective – and that it is an advantage having a variety of types of schools for students to choose from,” said Carnefelt.
“To grow is a big drive for companies, I think it’s quite natural that they are looking for new places to start and make their education concept available for more students,” said Johansson.
In Denmark, free schools, although independent, must have a board and do not have owners.
“Any funds granted to the school remains in the school,” said Trine Frederiksen, advicer to the Danish Minister of Education,Troels Lund Poulsen.
“There is no way in which founders or any others can withdraw money from the school,” she said.
Those who want to eliminate profits look at other Nordic countries, said Damberg, but it isn’t a fair comparison because Sweden has a very unique system.
Regardless, Thoré said the present system has to be changed.
“Free schools are supposed to be for children and their needs, and when you’re allowed to profit, the children’s needs come second.”