Education is one of the most important public goods provided by modern governments. Yet governments worldwide seldom perform well in the sector. This raises the question: why do governments preside over poor education quality? This article answers this question with evidence from Tanzania. Using data from surveys, administrative reports, and policy documents, it analyzes changing goals of education policy and associated impacts on access and learning over time. The main finding is that learn- ing has not always been the goal of schooling in Tanzania. Furthermore, for decades the government rationed access to both primary and secondary schooling for ideological reasons. These past policy choices partially explain contemporary poor outcomes in education. This article increase our understanding of the politics of education in low-income states. It also provides a corrective against the common assumption that governments always seek to maximize the provision of public goods and services for political gain.