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Issues in Program Design

Contributor: World Bank
Author: Decentralization Thematic Team
Contact: Jennie Litvack

Education and Decentralization


There is currently a global trend of decentralizing education systems. Most countries are experimenting with or contemplating some form of education decentralization. The process transfers decision-making powers from central Ministries of Education to intermediate governments, local governments, communities, and schools. The extent of the transfer varies, however, from administrative deconcentration to much broader transfer of financial control to the regional or local level. While there are solid theoretical justifications for decentralizing education systems, the process requires strong political commitment and leadership in order to succeed. The path, depth, and ultimately, the outcome of decentralization reforms depend on the motivations for reforms, the initial country and sector conditions, and the interaction of various important coalitions within the sector.

Why Decentralize Education

In a world where most governments have experienced the pitfalls of centralized education service provision, mainly: opaque decision-making, administrative and fiscal inefficiency, and poor quality and access to services, the theoretical advantages of decentralization have become extremely appealing. In general, the process of decentralization can substantially improve efficiency, transparency, accountability, and responsiveness of service provision compared with centralized systems. Decentralized education provision promises to be more efficient, better reflect local priorities, encourage participation, and, eventually, improve coverage and quality. In particular, governments with severe fiscal constraints are enticed by the potential of decentralization to increase efficiency. Beneficiary cost recovery schemes such as community financing have emerged as means for central governments to off-load some of the fiscal burden of education service provision.

Deciding Who Controls What

There is ongoing debate about the appropriate locus of decision making within the education sector. The debate remains unresolved because the process requires that policy makers rationalize and harmonize a complex set of complementary functions, mainly: curriculum design, teaching methods, student evaluation, textbook production and distribution, teacher recruitment and pay, school construction and rehabilitation, education financing, and parent-teacher linkages. The choices of who does what are further complicated because each of these functions has to be evaluated for primary, secondary, and tertiary education, and often for preschools and adult literacy as well. Some emerging areas of consensus are summarized in this table.

Decentralization Impacts

The evidence about the impact of decentralization on education services is mixed and limited. In Brazil, it has increased overall access (enrollments) but has done little to reverse persistent regional inequities in access to schooling, per capita expenditures, and quality. Chile's experience also suggests that decentralization does not by itself remove inequalities between localities of varying incomes, and quality in poorer communities continues to lag. These results are supported by experiences in Zimbabwe and New Zealand. However, the design of these decentralized systems have been criticized. One shortcoming is that central governments have off-loaded responsibilities to local governments and communities without providing adequate targeted support to poorer areas.

The initial evidence suggests that decentralization to subnational governments may not be sufficient and that increased autonomy for communities and school actors may be necessary to improve schools and learning. By increasing the participation of parents, community-managed schools in El Salvador show significantly lower rates of student and teacher absenteeism. While this type of management does not appear to have improved student performance in tests according to a recent evaluation, it may be just a matter of time before better student attendance translates into higher student achievement. In Nicaragua, controlling for similar household background and school inputs, students in schools that make more decisions about school functions perform better in tests. These results are derived from ongoing impact evaluations. Since the impact of management reforms such as these may take time to unfold, further empirical analysis is needed.


Decentralization of education systems demands harmonization of a complex set of functions, each for primary, secondary, tertiary, and non-formal education. Issues of how far to devolve decision-making in each of these subsectors, and to whom, continue to be debated. there are a number of on-going experiments worldwide, ranging from devolution of limited functions to intermediate governments and local governments, to community-based management and financing of schools. The current consensus is that tertiary education, and specific functions such as curriculum design and standards setting are best retained by the center; secondary and primary education should be devolved as far as possible; local participation in school management improves accountability and responsiveness, and fosters resource mobilization. Yet, the devil is in the details, and there are many details that need to be sorted out on a country by country basis.