Swedes Try Privately Run Child Care

THE Ask & Embla child-care center in Stockholm's Sodermalm neighborhood looks much like hundreds of day-care centers in Sweden. Children's artwork covers the walls. Groups play ball, listen to a story, or paint.

Though it might not look it, Ask & Embla is part of a revolution in Swedish child care. Unlike more than 95 percent of the country's child-care centers, Ask & Embla is privately, not publicly, operated.

"We were feeling the quality going down" in public child care, says Thomas Sehlan, one of three former public day-care workers who this year took over three public child-care sites. "Here we can make our own decisions ... and take money that before was put into administration and make better use of it here."

Ask & Embla is one example of privatization in Sweden's extensive social welfare network. As the country tries to reduce welfare-state costs, while increasing citizens' involvement in shaping services, interest in the role of the private sector has grown.

Sweden is not questioning the principles of one of the most liberal child-care policies in the world, including low-cost child care for pre-schoolers and parental leave that guarantees a new mother (or father) 90 percent of salary during a child's first year.

But Sweden's budget deficit, unmet child-care demand, and mounting dissatisfaction with public options have encouraged the private experiments.

In 1985 the Swedish parliament voted to make child care available to all children between 18 months and six years by 1991. But the state could not keep up with demand. Opportunities outside the public system were expanded in 1991 to include private companies and churches.

State funding for child-care contracts are set to slip 5 percent in the fall - part of Sweden's deficit-cutting process.

"If we had stayed public," says Ask & Embla's co-owner Lennart Bucht, "these cuts would have meant our quality would be going down."

Some supporters of Sweden's public-sector tradition have criticized the private experiments as elitist and profit-motivated. "For them it's ideological," says co-owner Kerstin Bloomberg. "They think if this is private enterprise we must be looking to make money." But parents coming to Ask & Embla pay their share of child care expenses (about $1,200 annually) according to what they can.

Ask & Embla's owners say the test of their success will come in September, when parents decide where to enroll their children. "We may be the owners, but we see the parents every day, and they let us know what they like and don't like," Mr. Sehlan says.

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