- C. Kirabo Jackson
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C. Kirabo Jackson
This paper presents new evidence on the benefits of decentralization in public education, focusing on a Chicago policy that granted school principals more control over budgeting and operations. Meta-analysis of similar policies shows a small average effect with significant variation across settings. To explain this heterogeneity, I adopt theories from public finance, contract theory and psychology that suggest that the impact of autonomy depends on motivation effects, principal objectives, and the alignment between district and school choices. In event-study models, on average, increased school-level control improved math and English passing rates by about four percentage points (0.1σ), comparable to interventions costing over $1,000 per pupil but achieved at nearly zero cost. Affected schools also see reduced principal turnover and improved school climate, indicating increased stability and effort. Deconvolution-based analysis of the distribution of true effects reveals a range from zero at the 20th percentile to a ten percentage-point increase at the 80th percentile (approximately 0.2σ). I provide design-based evidence supporting the theoretical literature: (a) High-quality principals with a track record of strong test score growth experience more positive autonomy effects – underscoring the role of local capacity and well-aligned incentives. (b) Schools with atypical student populations benefit more from autonomy and allocate resources to services tailored to their student’s specific needs – indicating that heterogeneity plays a key role.
We estimate the longer-run effects of attending an effective high school (one that improves a combination of test scores, survey measures of socio-emotional development, and behaviors in 9th grade) for students who are more versus less educationally advantaged (i.e., likely to attain more years of education based on 8th-grade characteristics). All students benefit from attending effective schools, but the least advantaged students experience larger improvements in high-school graduation, college going, and school-based arrests. This heterogeneity is not solely due to less-advantaged groups being marginal for particular outcomes. Commonly used test-score value-added understates the long-run importance of effective schools, particularly for less-advantaged populations. Patterns suggest this partly reflects less-advantaged students being relatively more responsive to non-test-score dimensions of school quality.
We examine all known "credibly causal" studies to explore the distribution of the causal effects of public K-12 school spending on student outcomes in the United States. For each of the 31 included studies, we compute the same marginal spending effect parameter estimate. Precision-weighted method of moments estimates indicate that, on average, a $1000 increase in per-pupil public school spending (for four years) increases test scores by 0.0352 standard deviations, high school graduation by 1.92 percentage points, and college-going by 2.65 percentage points. These pooled averages are significant at the 0.0001 level. When benchmarked against other interventions, test score impacts are smaller than those on educational attainment -- suggesting that test-score impacts understate the value of school spending.
The benefits to marginal capital spending increases take about five years to materialize, and are about half as large as (and less consistently positive than) those of non-capital-specific spending increases. The marginal spending impacts for all spending types are less pronounced for economically advantaged populations -- though not statistically significantly so. Consistent with a cumulative effect, the educational attainment impacts are larger with more years of exposure to the spending increase. Average impacts are similar across a wide range of baseline spending levels and geographic characteristics -- providing little evidence of diminishing marginal returns at current spending levels.
To assuage concerns that pooled averages aggregate selection or confounding biases across studies, we use a meta-regression-based method that tests for, and removes, certain biases in the reported effects. This approach is straightforward and can remove biases in meta-analyses where the parameter of interest is a ratio, slope, or elasticity. We fail to reject that the meta-analytic averages are unbiased. Moreover, policies that generate larger increases in per-pupil spending tend to generate larger improvements in outcomes, in line with the pooled average.
To speak to generalizability, we estimate the variability across studies attributable to effect heterogeneity (as opposed to sampling variability). This heterogeneity explains between 76 and 88 percent of the variation across studies. Estimates of heterogeneity allow us to provide a range of likely policy impacts. Our estimates suggest that a policy that increases per-pupil spending for four years will improve test scores and/or educational attainment over 90 percent of the time. We find evidence of small possible publication bias among very imprecise studies, but show that any effects on our precision-weighted estimates are minimal.