STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Schools run by private enterprise? Free iPods and laptop computers to attract students?
It may sound out of place in Sweden, that paragon of taxpayer-funded cradle-to-grave welfare. But a sweeping reform of the school system has survived the critics and 16 years later is spreading and attracting interest abroad.
"I think most people, parents and children, appreciate the choice," said Bertil Ostberg, from the Ministry of Education. "You can decide what school you want to attend and that appeals to people."
Since the change was introduced in 1992 by a center-right government that briefly replaced the long-governing Social Democrats, the numbers have shot up. In 1992, 1.7 percent of high schoolers and 1 percent of elementary schoolchildren were privately educated. Now the figures are 17 percent and 9 percent.
In some ways the trend mirrors the rise of the voucher system in the U.S., with all its pros and cons. But while the percentage of children in U.S. private schools has dropped slightly in recent years, signs are that the trend in Sweden is growing.
Before the reform, most families depended on state-run schools following a uniform national curriculum. Now they can turn to the "friskolor," or "independent schools," which choose their own teaching methods and staff, and manage their own buildings.
They remain completely government-financed and are not allowed to charge tuition fees. The difference is that their government funding goes to private companies which then try to run the schools more cost-effectively and keep whatever taxpayer money they save.
Bure Equity, listed on the Stockholm Stock Exchange, is the largest private school operator in Sweden and is expanding rapidly. In the first quarter of this year, net profit for its education portfolio rose 33 percent to $3 million.
Such profit-making troubles Swedes who don't think taxpayers should be enriching corporations.
The Social Democrats strongly opposed the change as anti-egalitarian, but when they were re-elected to power in 1994, they found it was so popular that they left it in place, though they imposed a lid on fees.
Barbro Lillkaas, a 40-year-old accountant, is considering putting her child in a private school, and has no problem with the profit motive.
"If you run a good operation then you make a profit. But you won't get any students if you are bad," she said. "You have to do a good job to get money; that is even more important for a private school."
At the Vittra chain of 27 schools owned by Bure Equity, children of different ages share classrooms and have individual curriculums designed for their needs and skills.
Despite initially being labeled elitist, the new system has gradually gained support and is being recognized as a success story.
Andrew Coulson, an education expert at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., called the Swedish program "a beacon, being more market-like than any other among rich countries," but said he had caveats.
In an e-mail, he said the system needed to be more flexible about how money can be spent, students recruited and curriculums chosen. "It's not a very market-like program. But since it's the best thing around in the rich world, it's definitely worth watching," he said.
Michael Fallon, who served in Britain's former Conservative government, said his party is working on a similar plan to be implemented if it defeats the ruling Labour party in the next election.
"It is a model that is clearly working and we need to learn from that," said Fallon, who visited Sweden in May.
In the U.S., publicly funded private school voucher programs for low-income children exist in some areas, including Washington, D.C., Wisconsin and Ohio, but the issue still arises from time to time in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Some Swedes say the private system drains funds from public education, but officials say independent schools have forced public schools to raise their own standards and improve efficiency.
"Today, I think we have at least as good quality if not better than some independent schools because we have really joined the battle and use our money in a much better way," said Eva-Lotta Kastenholm, who is in charge of public schools in Sollentuna, a suburb of Stockholm.
Competition has forced Gardesskolan, a public school in Sollentuna, to put two teachers in each class of 30 children instead of one. Its student body has risen more than fivefold to 400 since 1992.
"All the schools work with some kind of board or parents' council where they can take part," said Anette Lundqvist, Gardesskolan's principal. "Parents have a bigger influence now."
Many are irked by the private schools' marketing campaigns, which include those free iPods and laptops.
"Education is about profound learning, but now it has become superficial," said Kerstin Solang, headmistress of a public school in Eskilstuna, 75 miles west of Stockholm.
Some teachers worry about job security at private schools, but appreciate their greater autonomy.
"There was a lot of skepticism toward this in the beginning but we don't have an opinion about which owner is better," said Eva-Lis Preisz, head of the Swedish Teachers' Union.
It doesn't matter how the money is channeled because ultimately, she says, "it's all financed by taxes."
For some pupils, private and public schools have become wholly interchangeable.
In the Vittra school, a 10-year-old boy named Oliver has an assignment to write a crime novel, but he says, "I don't have the patience to become a crime novelist." He is leaving Vittra in the fall for a public school specializing in music because, he says, "music really is my life."
Associated Press Writer Nancy Zuckerbrod in Washington contributed to this report.