STOCKHOLM -- Maria Jilken's new Octopus alternative day care center in a suburb of Sweden's capital city requires parents to do maintenance work, closes entirely for weeks at a time, pays some teachers less than do regular schools, meets for fewer hours a day and provides the children with less supervision.
Still, the school's waiting list is so long that Jilken has had to cut it off.
In Sweden, the idea that parents might want to spend more time with their children and get more involved with their schools is a radical change from the welfare state philosophy that made this country the darling of generations of dreamers throughout the Western world.
But these are radical times in Sweden, which spent decades creating a political and social utopia that made the country a model of socialism that worked. The system has now been declared dead and is being buried with the most cursory of honors.
Last fall, Swedes fed up with the world's highest tax rates and an increasingly troubled economy ousted the Social Democratic Labor Party that had controlled the government for all but six of the previous 59 years. They elected a divided parliament that yielded a minority government under Prime Minister Carl Bildt. Bildt, 42, is a conservative whose market-oriented rhetoric sounds like a Ronald Reagan speech.
"The age of collectivism is at an end now," Bildt promised in his inaugural address. "In our Sweden, society will always mean something more than the state." Bildt pledged to dismantle huge swaths of the social welfare system, giving Swedes the right to choose their own family doctors, schools, child care and housing.
Jilken's Octopus school is based on the view that Sweden's social welfare system has produced a nation of people who believe government will do everything for them, a people whose initiative and responsibility have been sapped by life in a society where everything from low rents to good jobs is guaranteed and served up by the omniscient state.
"In the regular schools, everybody does the same thing at the same time, because everyone is supposed to be equal," Jilken said. "Our children choose what they want to do and learn to be responsible for themselves. We Swedes never had to do that; we always blamed society. It's time to admit there are limits. You only have so much and that's all."
Emboldened by such supporters, Bildt began his term by announcing tax cuts, "a revolution of freedom of choice" and the beginning of the end of Sweden's cherished neutrality.
Actually, it turns out that the vaunted Swedish neutrality was not quite what it claimed to be. The Bildt government revealed last week that as early as the 1950s, Sweden secretly worked with the NATO alliance to make its defense compatible with Western military forces. Swedish runways were widened so NATO fighters could land on them in the event of conflict with the Soviet Union. Any pretense of neutrality vanished last year when Sweden applied to join the European Community, which plans to pool its resources in a common foreign and defense policy.
In a country where more than 40 percent of workers toil either directly for government or for the 60-odd corporations and banks that the government owns, a move to reduce the role of the state has most business people standing and cheering.
"I hope they will be able to stay the course," said Peter Wallenberg, vice chairman of Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken and scion of one of the country's wealthiest families. "This is a revolution, and people do see it as a threat. In the past 50 years, we created in this country about the biggest welfare state ever seen. But it was done at the expense of the economic awareness of every citizen. People really had no idea of the cost of everything."
For example, government subsidies paid 60 percent of housing costs, leaving Swedes accustomed to artificially low rents. The Bildt government is gradually reducing housing subsidies, which are to be eliminated by 1999.
A tax code that routinely claimed half of people's income -- and often much more -- made it pointless for entrepreneurs to expand their businesses.
The work force's absenteeism rate was routinely 25 percent. The new government has moved to attack the "long-weekend syndrome" by abolishing sick leave compensation for the first two days of absence, but the massive trade union confederation is fighting the plan.
Many individuals have welcomed the changes as a fresh breeze. "The idea of trying to make everyone equal hurt the smarter children and the most creative adults," said Anders Jilken, board chairman of the Octopus school. "Our best people left the country for university in America or Australia, or for jobs in Europe. Now we have new rules, and that's going to be hard."
With unemployment already at 4 percent -- a distant goal for most Western countries, but shockingly high for Sweden -- the popular appetite for massive cuts in public sector jobs is limited at best. Eight months into the Bildt government's three-year term, there has been hardly any decline in public-sector employment.
"Okay, people wanted change," said Christina Ingre, an airline flight attendant. "But we're afraid of what's happening in our private lives now. Jobs are being cut. For the last five years, we all knew that the system had gone too far. But now people are so scared, I could see a return to the socialists."
"It's going too fast," said Eva Brunnbirg, a public school teacher whose son attends the Octopus alternative school. "You need time to make the mental changes. They're changing our whole identity."
Even such supporters of the government as Maria Jilken said Bildt has gone too far, too fast. "Instead of changing people's attitudes first, they're doing it all with a hammer," she said.
Some signs of change are evident already. But despite tax cuts, deregulation and fear of joblessness, many Swedes say the Bildt government's revolution is mostly rhetorical.
"There is no economic revolution," said Jan Guillou, host of a Swedish television news program and author of a series of popular spy novels. "What's in our pocketbooks has not changed. Swedes still believe that if your house falls down, somebody will take care of it for you."
In a country with no history of revolution, the hard choices posed by the Bildt government may have seemed attractive and necessary at first, but they still have not won overwhelming public support, Guillou said.
The Bildt government insists it is making progress, though it admits that being a minority government in a heavily splintered parliament has slowed the revolution.
"Quick is not quick enough," said Peter Egardt, Bildt's cabinet chief and undersecretary of state. "With only a three-year term, we have to show results by year three. We have already reduced state spending by 0.8 percent in eight months."
Sweden is privatizing part of its railroad system, eliminating laws that made it hard for foreign companies to invest here, and selling off state-owned resources such as mines and forests. But there is a consensus that fundamental aspects of the Swedish model will remain, even if the government achieves much of its privatization program.
"As even our conservatives look at the United States -- 30 million poor people and riots in Los Angeles -- they're not so quick to abandon the welfare state," said Laila Edholm, spokesman for the Social Democrats.
Egardt conceded that socialist governments in Sweden did achieve steady growth and generous social benefits during the 1950s and '60s, but he said the system became radicalized and inefficient in the 1970s.
Socialist leaders acknowledge mistakes were made. "We went too far in telling everyone 'We will take care of you' with always more wages, more vacation, more benefits," said Mona Sahlin, deputy chairman of the Social Democrats. "You have to teach people now to take responsibility for their families and their kids."
In fact, the socialists had begun reforming the welfare system before they lost power, cutting taxes and reducing Sweden's reliance on public-sector employment.
"The big question for us is, how far do we have the guts to go?" Sahlin asked. "We still have the red flag and sing the 'Internationale,' same as the Russians did. We have to change our symbols and our message. If we don't regain voter confidence, we will never come back to power again."