Challenging the conventional wisdom that the spread of democracy was a leading driver of the expansion of primary schooling, recent studies show that democratization in fact did not lead to an average increase in primary school enrollment rates. One reason for this null effect is that there was already considerable provision of primary education before democratization. Still, it is possible that the spread of democracy did impact other aspects of education systems, such as the content of education and the extent to which teaching jobs are politicized. Studying this possibility cross-nationally has been infeasible due to data limitations. To address this gap, we take advantage of an original dataset covering 160 countries from 1945 to 2021 that contains information about these aspects of education. We document that transitions to democracy tend to be preceded by a decline in the politicization of both education content and teaching jobs. However, soon after democratization occurs, this decline usually halts. Counterfactual estimates suggest that democratization roughly halves the degree to which teacher hiring and firing decisions are politicized, but has a smaller impact on the content of education. The empirical patterns that we uncover have important implications for future research.
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.