Are there electoral rewards to increasing access to secondary education? In a new paper, we ask and answer this question in the context of a programmatic policy to increase access to secondary education through school construction in Tanzania beginning in 2006. We uncover two important findings. First, the electoral impacts of large-scale programs of this nature are contingent. The promise to increase access to education generated an electoral bump of about 2 percentage points for the ruling party (CCM). However, following implementation of the policy, the incumbent party experienced a penalty of -1.4 percentage points. Second, the electoral penalty was more pronounced in places that had preexisting schools. We attribute the negative electoral impact in 2010 to the manner in which the policy was implemented. The construction of new schools (which often were of low quality) involved an implicit tax on Tanzanians in the form of community contributions. The school expansion program was also accompanied by declines in learning outcomes, as measured by pass rates in national exams.
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These findings highlight the importance of policy implementation. In order to realize the virtuous cycle of electoral accountability and broad-based programmatic policies, countries must have the fiscal and bureaucratic capacity to implement financially and logistically intensive policies. Fiscal capacity would enable governments to raise the revenue needed for public expenditure and not impose informal taxes during policy implementation. Bureaucratic capacity would reduce the risk of saddling citizens with substandard public goods and services. Otherwise, the very implementation of potentially beneficial policies may reveal government shortcomings, thereby eroding politicians’ incentives to invest in improving public welfare.
Our findings also speak to the politics of education in African states. After more than a decade of cutbacks in education spending, many African countries began reinvesting in access to education in the late 1990s. Much of the investment was, in part, motivated by the Millennium Development Goals—a global compact that, among other things, set a goal of achieving universal primary education (UPE). Governments abolished school fees and introduced capitation grants to replace household contributions. As a result, enrollment rates rose significantly (Figure 1). There was also a political dimension to the drive to increase access to primary education. African countries were likely to adopt UPE policies around elections.
Figure 1. Average primary and secondary school enrollment
The large increase in enrollment rates following UPE policies created a new challenge for African governments: meeting the increased demand for secondary education. As UPE cohorts advanced through the primary-school cycle, governments faced political pressure to invest in secondary-school access to meet the excess demand. From Ghana, to Kenya, to Uganda, presidential electioneering featured promises of investments in 100 percent transition from primary to secondary school.
Like other African countries, Tanzania implemented a UPE policy at the turn of the century (2001) which was then following increasing demand for access to secondary education. In 2004, the government published a policy document outlining its intention to increase secondary school enrollment by adding classrooms to existing schools, as well as building new regional schools. However, before the 2005 election, the prime minister Edward Lowassa, made an abrupt announcement accelerating the process of increasing secondary school access. He guaranteed that each of Tanzania’s wards would have at least one secondary school. At the time, 83 percent of wards had none.
Figure 2. Primary and secondary school enrollment in Tanzania
The results were impressive. In a few years, the number of secondary schools in Tanzania increased by more than 3,000 and student enrollment quadrupled. This success was built on the back of community contributions that required households to contribute cash, their time, or materials for school construction. In effect, it was a system of informal taxation. The rapid increase in the number of secondary schools (and student enrollment) also exposed the government’s inability to meet its promise to deploy qualified teachers. To address the massive shortage of secondary school teachers, the government resorted to deploying high school graduates with only a few months of teacher training. This, in part, led to a precipitous drop in the pass rates in national exams. Our paper attributes the decline in electoral support for the incumbent party to the revelation of these shortcomings of the secondary-school expansion policy during implementation. Public opinion data from Afrobarometer and data from Tanzania’s National Panel Survey corroborate these findings.
The government responded to citizen demands for quality improvement with the Big Results Now! (BRN) initiative in 2013—a package of reforms to boost learning outcomes. BRN initiatives included publication of national exam results, recognition/rewards for top and most improved schools, remedial education, addressing teacher motivation, and curriculum reforms (with emphasis on competency). How did voters respond to the turnaround in pass rates following these reforms? We find no electoral effects of positive information about school quality in the 2015 election. More tellingly, in the run-up to the 2015 election, the CCM platform did not lean on the BRN initiatives but instead doubled down on expanding no-fee secondary education.
Tanzania’s experience with expanding school access is illustrative of the ongoing tension between expanding access and improving learning outcomes. Despite contingent electoral effects, increasing access is still popular among politicians because it is easily visible and attributable. Improving learning outcomes is a tougher challenge. Identifying and implementing effective policies is hard, expensive, and takes time, and the link between politicians’ efforts and improvements in learning outcomes may not always be readily apparent to voters.