The Non-Democratic Roots of Mass Education: Evidence from 200 Years

The Non-Democratic Roots of Mass Education: Evidence from 200 Years

By Agustina S. Paglayan, University of California, San Diego

Because primary education is often conceptualized as a pro-poor redistributive policy, a common argument is that democratization increases its provision. But primary education can also serve the goals of autocrats, including redistribution, promoting loyalty, nation-building, and/or industrialization. To examine the relationship between democratization and education provision empirically, I leverage new datasets covering 109 countries and 200 years. Difference-in-differences and interrupted time series estimates find that, on average, democratization had no or little impact on primary school enrollment rates. When unpacking this average null result, I find that, consistent with median voter theories, democratization can lead to an expansion of primary schooling, but the key condition under which it does—when a majority lacked access to primary schooling before democratization—rarely holds. Around the world, state-controlled primary schooling emerged a century before democratization, and in three-fourths of countries that democratized, a majority already had access to primary education before democratization.