School autonomy has been and continues to be one of the most important education reform strategies around the world despite ambiguity about its theoretical and empirical effects on students learning. We use international data from PISA to test three country-level factors that might account for inconsistent results in prior literature: (1) the selective implementation of school autonomy based on school performance; (2) differential influence on high-risk subgroups; and (3) the presence of accountability policies to prevent opportunism by autonomous schools. We find that the relationship between autonomy and student test performance varies both across countries and within countries across subgroups in both magnitude and direction. Similar results are observed if decentralization is coupled with accountability policies. All of three tested factors influence country-level associations between school decentralization and student learning, which suggests that autonomy is effective only when contextual factors and other policies are aligned.
A recent literature provides new evidence that school resources are important for student outcomes. In this paper, we show that school finance reform-induced increases in student performance are driven by those states that had test-based accountability policies in place at the time. By incentivizing school improvement, accountability systems (such as the federal No Child Left Behind act) may raise the efficiency with which additional school funding gets spent. Our empirical approach leverages the timing of school finance reforms to compare funding impacts on student test scores between states that had accountability in place at the time of the reform with states that did not. The results indicate that finance reforms are three times more productive in low-income school districts when also accompanied by test-based accountability. These findings shed new light on the role of accountability incentives in education production and the mechanisms supporting the effectiveness of school resources.