Do school systems under central government control provide equal education to all students? Although direct control can enforce uniform standards, measures, and teacher qualifications, large bureaucracies tend to rely on a small set of simple, objective, and easily verified characteristics that can blind them to local realities.
Using data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the authors compare public and private schools in 34 countries. They find that public schools systems in countries with strong governments have more equality than their private counterparts, but the situation is reversed in weaker states. When government is weak, centralized control can project only the illusion of equality while actually producing more inequality than “uncontrolled” local schools under bottom-up control.