Centralization and Subnational Capacity: The Struggle to Make Federalism Work Equitably in Public Education
By Susan L. Moffitt, Brown University, Cadence Willse, The College of New Jersey, Kelly B. Smith, Stetson University and David K. Cohen, University of Michigan
Vast disparities between and within American states’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have evoked renewed attention to whether greater centralization might enhance investments in subnational capacity and remedy subnational inequalities or instead erode subnational organizational capacity. Developments in American public education (1997–2015) offer perspective on this puzzle, which we examine by applying interrupted time series analysis to a novel dataset to assess the implications of centralization on subnational investments in administrative and technical capacity, two dimensions of organizational capacity. We find simultaneous subnational erosion in administrative capacity and growth in technical capacity following centralization, both of which appear concentrated in low-poverty areas despite centralization’s explicit antipoverty purposes. Public education reforms highlight both the challenge of dismantling subnational inequality through centralization and the need for future research on policy designs that enable centralization to yield subnational capacity that is able to remedy inequality.