Finnish Government Trying to Suppress Private Schooling?

Maybe I'm missing some important context here (for instance, may private schools function without a license?), but this seems quite troubling:

In its Thursday session the [Finnish] government decided to deny licenses for new private schools, as well as to turn down applications for the expansion of the activities of existing schools. . . .

Minister of Education Antti Kalliomäki (soc dem) said in a statement Thursday that it was not the function of schools to proclaim one single truth, religious or otherwise. "One school teaching according to the convictions of some and a second school teaching according to the convictions of others is not real pluralism." Mr Kalliomäki previously proposed also denying extensions to fixed-term licenses held by existing private schools. . . .

It's dangerous enough when state and local governments have a de facto near monopoly over primary and secondary education, as they do in the U.S. But at least here private schools are legal, though they labor under a stiff competitive disadvantage against the government-subsidized public schools; and even public schools are mostly controlled at the state level and the local level, not at the federal level. When a government actually prohibits private schools (which would be unconstitutional in the U.S., incidentally), or prohibits new private schools, that seems much more troublesome. And if the Finnish government's control over the schools is centralized (a matter that I'm not sure about) rather than mostly decentralized, that would be more troubling still.

The "not the function of schools to proclaim one single truth" argument also strikes me as weak to the point of disingenuousness. I will bet you that government-run Finnish schools, like all government-run schools and likely all schools, period, do proclaim one single truth on certain matters.

Sometimes that's uncontroversially right -- few schools, I suspect, even discuss the flat earth theory (at least in geology class). Sometimes it's controversial, but also right: While I think that at least private schools should be entitled to teach creationism (I set aside for purposes of this post whether the U.S. Establishment Clause bars government-run schools from doing the same), surely a school should be entitled to say that it will teach just the theories that it thinks are scientifically sound. (Perhaps in some situations it would be good to spend some time discussing rival theories, but that's a complicated decision, and schools should certainly be free to decide otherwise.) And sometimes the decision is subject to very serious political and ideological dispute, and far from clearly correct, but I suspect inevitable in any country: I'm pretty certain that Finnish government-run schools do proclaim a single truth on many historical, ethical, and other matters.

Finally, I recognize that many people support government-run schools precisely because they do teach an orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that one hopes will create better future citizens, and a more cohesive society. But my view is that the benefits of such government-imposed teaching of orthodoxy are considerably outweighed by the risks.

By the way, just to head off one possible source of speculation: As best I can tell from The CIA World Factbook, the move seems quite unlikely to stem from concerns about the presence of large and potentially dangerous unassimilated ethnic or religious minorities. The Factbook reports Finland's demographics as "Finn 93.4%, Swede 5.7%, Russian 0.4%, Estonian 0.2%, Roma 0.2%, Sami 0.1%," "Lutheran National Church 84.2%, Greek Orthodox in Finland 1.1%, other Christian 1.1%, other 0.1%, none 13.5%," and (as to language) "Finnish 92% (official), Swedish 5.6% (official), other 2.4% (small Sami- and Russian-speaking minorities)." The Swedes have been part of Finnish life for centuries, and while one should always be scared of us Russkies, I doubt that we're causing the Finns that much trouble these days . . . .

tefta (mail):
Eugene hits another one out of the park! Not being a Ruskie, I don't get a good picture of life in Finland, but somehow don't see it as a hot bed of frothing turmoil.

Could it be that even in Finland, the younger generation isn't buying what the left is selling anymore and the government is feeling the need to tighten the screws?
2.10.2006 2:24pm
Hans Bader (mail):
The left in Finland won a very close election recently, re-electing their president by a narrow margin.

The incumbent president may have been re-elected in part because she closely resembles Conan O'Brien, the American TV talk show host, whose show is popular in Finland, and who boosted her candidacy at every opportunity, citing her resemblance to him.

Her successors on the left won't be able to take advantage of that resemblance and may be attempting to nip incipient conservatives in the bud.
2.10.2006 2:42pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
OK, if I didn't already know and trust Hans, I'd have thought he was pulling our leg with the Conan O'Brien item. But Hans is reliable as usual, see here. As to the likeness, you be the judge:

2.10.2006 2:53pm
"...while one should always be scared of us Russkies, I doubt that we're causing the Finns that much trouble these days..."

Have the Russians attempted to withhold natural gas from the Fins at all lately?
2.10.2006 3:03pm
Bill Twist:
Well, Eugene, they did kick your butts in full contact Biathlon at the 1940 Winter Games.
2.10.2006 3:09pm

But my view is that the benefits of such government-imposed teaching of orthodoxy are considerably outweighed by the risks.

One development in the past few years that his given me pause in agreeing with this argument is the rise of the Madrassa schools of radical Islam in Pakistan. Under a school choice system, which I used to support strongly, how would a parent be prohibited from sending his or her child to a school set up to teach radical Islamic hatred of all things non-Islamic?
2.10.2006 3:10pm
nk (mail) (www):
I too am an immigrant -- from a European country whose constitution places the obligation of educating children on the government. It has a wonderful free, public educational system. Once you pass the entrance exams, you can spend the rest of your life trying to graduate as a doctor. Just kidding. They do provide a very good education equal to our best schools here. There are very few private schools and as far as I can tell most of them are branches of American University. For that reason I do not see anything sinister here. I personally believe that the right and obligation of educating children belongs to the parents but different societies (going back to ancient Sparta) may take a different view. In America both views are valued. Finnish tradition and experience probably lead them to a different conclusion.
2.10.2006 3:16pm
As a Finn living in the US I can state the following facts/opinions:

1. Eugene's interpretation of the meaning of school licensing seems consistent with my interpretation from Finnish language news sources. It is really license to operate a school that children can attend without being considered truant from public schools.

2. I don't think the unassimilated minorities concern here is warranted, I think this is a symptom of typical social-democratic paternalistic concern over the quality of education.

3. While it does not change the underlying freedom of choice issue, I think following are true statements:
a) The government run public schools (where the central government has much power over everything) are generally really good and by some objective academic standards far better than the religious Christian schools proposed.
b) Public schools in Finland do teach religion. So children of at least members of Lutheran or Russian-Orthodox churches get religious teaching in public schools. I think in some urban areas this might even be true for Muslims. Non-religious or religious minority students are exempt from this.
2.10.2006 3:29pm
I was under two impressions that might be completely false, but that might also be relevant to the context of their school licensing:

I was under the impression that Finland had a state religion: Lutheran. Is this true?

I also heard that Finnish society, while historically extremely tolerant, was increasingly becoming racist to Somalian immigrants and second-generation Somalian-Finns. Did this have anything to do with the licensing decisions? (e.g. want to assimilate Somalian-Finns, not have private schools that they might flock to?)
2.10.2006 3:36pm
Also from the finnish language source I read it seems to be framed as a "no state funding for teaching junk science" sort of thing. A good parallel here is the recent stink where people were arguing that a school teaching the YEC flood explanation of geology should not be able to be accredited for teaching science.

But my sources are from the internet, so salt to taste.
2.10.2006 3:40pm
I guess I'll play the role of resident Finn fact checker for a while. I hope I get facts right.

Finland actually has two state religions: Lutheran and Russian Orthodox. Plus it has complete religious freedom (more or less). With the state religion status for the two churches comes power of the churches to tax members of those churches (church tax is about 1%, not exactly sure). I think the two churches get their share out of corporate/business taxation regardless who owns them. This for me has always been a questionable practice.

As for for Finnish having been extremely tolerant I am not so sure about it. Racist feelings towards Somalian immigrants are not rare in Finland even though the numbers of immigrants in general are very low. But I don't think any of this has anything to do with this particular school licensing decision, the schools that were denied were more Fundamentalist Christian type schools.
2.10.2006 3:44pm
Why is it unconstitutional to ban private schooling in the US? Gosh, it's based on one of those substantive due process decisions from one of those activist courts.

[W]e think it entirely plain that the Act of 1922 unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 535 (1925)

"Gee, that right isn't in my copy of the Constitution." Someone call Tom DeLay!
2.10.2006 3:46pm
Thanks, randomfinn.
2.10.2006 3:47pm
Mark Seecof (mail):
The (socialist) education minister of Norway banned new private schools in December 2005 over "human rights" objections (and abolished student-performance tests, too). It looks like the (socialist) party which presently controls the government of Finland is making a similar move. I surmise that in both countries, the governing parties have decided that (at least some) private schools provide insufficient Left-wing indoctrination--or possibly even teach things contrary to Leftist dogma--so the best thing to do is ban them.

I'll speculate even more: I think that smart parents (engineers, business(wo)men) who are not intensely political are increasingly unhappy with the steady academic erosion in public schools for their children. In the Scandinavian countries as in the USA (according to my friends) public schools devote more and more of each day to political gibberish rather than academics. Jobs in high-tech industry in Norway and Finland (say, oil extraction, or cell-phone-making) pay those smart parents enough money (even after brutal taxes) to send their kids to academically-oriented private schools--and they want to do that, because those parents hope to equip their kids for practical success in life.

Without intending to, such parents have made themselves enemies of their (present) rulers. They may think of themselves as "good social democrats," who just want practical schooling for their children. But when a mother arranges for her child to study, say, arithmetic instead of GLBT rights, the Leftists "decode" her action to "telling the child that arithmetic is more important than Leftist dogma." Leftists regard (their) dogma as paramount. So they regard any slight it (whether in favor of apolitical academics or any other subject) as a direct attack--on the Leftists as well as their dogma. To a Leftist government, even benign neglect of Leftist teaching is abhorrent--and demands strong preventative measures.
2.10.2006 3:53pm
Randomfinn, might the Social Democrats (or whoever is in control of the decision) deny christian permits so that they could later deny muslim permits to Somalian-Finns? Or is the politics such that this isn't a likely thing for Social Democrats (or whoever would be in control of the decision)?
2.10.2006 4:01pm
I guess this takes my afternoon. Time to get defensive:

Mark Seecof: I think your characterization is mostly unwarranted as it applies to Finland (I don't know a thing about Norway). Finland does have old private schools (few of them) that either cater to specific groups like French, Russian and English language schools. It also has couple private (primary and secondary) institutions that have much higher academic standards than the public schools. See for example

I don't completely disagree with your statement about gibberish being taught, but in general it does not apply to this particular situation. This was not a case of "better" schools not getting licensed or trying to shut down all private schools. I think that the decision was still the wrong one and that the statement by minister Kalliomaki is Orwellian, but this was a case of Social Democrat and Center Party (mostly church going rural people) controlled government not wanting to give power to group of Fundamental Christians. Most Finns, even highly educated ones, tend to be relatively happy with the private schools and there seems to none of the kind of "private schools for better academics" kind of movement in Finland.
2.10.2006 4:05pm
Broncos wrote:

Randomfinn, might the Social Democrats (or whoever is in control of the decision) deny christian permits so that they could later deny muslim permits to Somalian-Finns? Or is the politics such that this isn't a likely thing for Social Democrats (or whoever would be in control of the decision)?

I don't think there is any evidence for this. I think this is more of government control of religion (=minority, more fundamentalist, Christian religion) question without any ethnic dimension. The number of Somalis in Finland is tiny (few thousand would my guess), Finland compared to other Western European countries is remarkable homogeneously.
2.10.2006 4:13pm
Thanks, again.
2.10.2006 4:13pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Bill Twist: My favorite comment of the week!
2.10.2006 4:58pm
eeyn524 (mail):
Question for those who know - Prof. Volokh says that it would be unconstitutional to ban private schools. It's easy to see that a state couldn't prevent a church (or anyone else) from holding classes. But would it be unconstitutional to require all children 5-16 to attend public school from, say, 8-4am M-F, and any extra learning they want to do is on their own time? Not whether it should be unconstitutional, but has there been an SC case on it?
2.10.2006 6:46pm
Can't find a good name:
eeyn524: Yes, it would be unconstitutional to require all children to attend public school, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), quoted above by commenter Steve. Here's a link to the decision. In that case, Oregon had passed a law requiring all parents and guardians of children aged 8 to 16 to send the children to public school until they completed the 8th grade, with certain limited exceptions; the Court declared the law unconstitutional.
2.10.2006 7:59pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
In the case of the US, practice is moving towards even more freedom of private education in that home schooling has been legalized in all states in the last 30 years and is de facto (though not de jure) completely unregulated.

Pierce was a substantive due process case but it's one of such decisions that commie judges still support.

The practical reason for not banning private schools in America and wide-open home schooling is the impossibility of enforcement.

Millions of parents would decline to turn their children over to the State. Early in the home schooling movement, enforcement attempts were made and parents just ignored them (or moved across school district lines).

Nebraska with its residual Democratic Farm Labor background, used to ban uncertified teachers even in private schools. In the early '80s they shut down a church school (and the church it was in) but after enough agitation and civil disobedience (wheelchair-bound Vietnam Vet turned minister cuts the padlock on the church, etc.) Nebraska gave up.

Aside from wholesale termination of parental rights, the state lacks enforcement powers in this area.
2.10.2006 9:44pm
Loffe (mail):
From a Finnish point of view, this is a strictly non-religious (and most certainly a non-ethnic) issue: 7 permits were sought, and 2 were granted. Of the 5 denied, 2 were Christian, 2 were Rudolph Steiner schools, and one was a small rural school with no pedagogical or religious leaning. Both of the granted licenses went to Christian schools. There are altogether 68 private schools in Finland.
(source: here but it's in Finnish, so you'll have to take my word for it ;) )

The justification given for denying these licenses was that "there was insufficient professional and financial support" for operating the schools, and that there was "insufficient local or national demand for education", given the decreasing size of generations and a need to cull the existing public school network.

All the latest OECD and UNESCO learning benchmarks put Finland in the top three in all of the categories, so personally I understand if the Ministry of Education is interested in guaranteeing a high level of education, even though as a libertarian (or what we here would call a liberal...) I dislike this heavy-handed top-down approach. After all, market mechanisms do provide regulation of quality as well - but in a situation where competition is anything but perfect, it's hard to say whether market mechanisms would actually enter into the picture. The supply and demand of elementary education are, after all, extremely local phenomena. Not a simple equation at all.

As for Socialist agendas and Left-wing dogmas, well, I believe those are discussions that are perhaps more pertinent within the realm of American public education.
2.11.2006 4:06am
Sarah (mail) (www):
Though since Finland is a very small country, there's not much information on it, it does seem that there is some legal protection or provision or at least a loophole of some sort that permits homeschooling:


There are a number of states in the US where it's considerably more painful to be a "private school" than a homeschooler (and when I was being homeschooled myself, a few states -- like Michigan -- where we pretty much had to operate as though we were a private school, to stay within the law.) I'm thinking of California here; last time I took a look at the CA homeschooling/private schooling regulations I got a headache.

Considering the typical requirements in most European countries for starting any kind of a business, it doesn't really strike me as unusual that they've put in place stringent requirements in order to gain permission to open a private school; schooling is moreover generally perceived as a public service in most countries (even the ones that are quite open to homeschooling.) It's even more not-surprising that it's become a government monopoly that needs to be protected; if the "there's not enough demand to warrant such an operation!" reason is to be believed, that's what they're doing, by their own admission.

(note that I still think it's sad and annoying, and would presumably fight it if I were, you know, living in Finland.)
2.11.2006 12:15pm
While I agree in principle with the notion that private schools are desirable to break the monopoly that the state has on educating children, I think (having grown up in NYC) that there are very real, and very undesirable consequences of extensive networks of private schools, especially where they exist in communities that are marked by significant disparities in wealth. I've long thought that the biggest problem with NYC public schools is the existence of so many private schools, and it would be hard to convince me otherwise.

The existence of private schools for the "haves" leaves public education for the "have nots," and also deprives the public schools of community support (often the very bad public schools are in very good, affluent neighborhoods). I think that while this unfortunate collateral consequence of private schooling is not sufficient for America to overcome its commitment to the First and Fourteenth Amendments, I do think that it lends some circumstantial support for the contention that Finland's choice may have some desirable results.
2.11.2006 2:01pm
markm (mail):
Breakdown: The lack of good private schools in rural areas certainly doesn't prevent some rural public schools from being execrably bad.
2.12.2006 9:56am
Bill Twist:
Bill Twist: My favorite comment of the week!

Thanks Eugene. Sad part is, most people won't get it.
2.13.2006 11:22am
Rich Rostrom (mail):
Bill Twist: I get it - but it's not true. Finland led on points for the first few rounds, which was a miraculous performance, but the Soviets got the decision.
2.14.2006 11:45pm