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When Does School Autonomy Improve Student Outcomes?

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.

Decentralization, School Autonomy, Heterogeneity, Principal Quality
Education level
Document Object Identifier (DOI)

EdWorkingPaper suggested citation:

Jackson, C. Kirabo. (). When Does School Autonomy Improve Student Outcomes?. (EdWorkingPaper: 23-808). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University:

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