The Great Leap Forward: The Political Economy of Education in Brazil, 1889-1930

by André Martínez-Fritscher, Aldo Musacchio & Martina Viarengo

Overview — In 1890, with only 15 percent of the population literate, Brazil had the lowest literacy rate among the large economies in the Americas. Yet between 1890 and 1940, Brazil had the most rapid increase in literacy rates in the Americas, catching up with and even surpassing some of its more educated peers such as Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. This jump in literacy was simultaneously accompanied by a brisk increase in the number of teachers, number of public schools, and enrollment rates. Why were political elites in Brazil willing to finance this expansion of public education for all? André Martínez-Fritscher of Banco de México, Aldo Musacchio of HBS, and Martina Viarengo of the London School of Economics explain how state governments secured funds to pay for education and examine the incentives of politicians to spend on education. They conclude that the progress made in education during these decades had mixed results in the long run. Key concepts include:

  • Competition in national elections and a literacy requirement may have provided the right incentives for state political parties and state politicians to spend on education in a way that increased literacy rates in a significant way over the period studied.
  • Brazil started from an extremely low base and ended in what today would be considered a low level of literacy as well (around 40 percent of the population).
  • Between 1889 and 1930 there was significant progress in the provision of elementary education in Brazil. It was to a large extent a consequence of the fact that some states got more taxation powers and had the obligation to spend on public education.
  • Positive trade shocks can be converted into long-term development if there is electoral competition, and economic assets are not concentrated in a few hands.
  • Expenditures on education between 1889 and 1930 altered the development path of some states and changed their relative rankings compared to other states in a somewhat permanent way.

Author Abstract

Brazil at the turn of the twentieth century offers an interesting puzzle. Among the large economies in the Americas it had the lowest level of literacy in 1890, but by 1940 the country had surpassed most of its peers in terms of literacy and had done a significant improvement of its education system. All of this happened in spite of the fact that the Constitution of 1891 included a literacy requirement to vote and gave states the responsibility to spend on education. That is to say, Brazilian states had a significant improvement in education levels and a significant increase in expenditures on education per capita despite having institutions that limited political participation for the masses (Lindert, 2004; Engerman, Mariscal and Sokoloff, 2009) and having one of the worst colonial institutional legacies of the Americas (Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robison, 2001; Easterly and Levine, 2003; and Engerman and Sokoloff, 1997, 2002). This paper explains how state governments got the funds to pay for education and examines the incentives that politicians had to spend on education between 1889 and 1930. Our findings are threefold. First, we show that the Constitution of 1891, which decentralized education and allowed states to collect export taxes to finance expenditures, rendered states with higher windfall tax revenues from the export of commodities to spend more on education per capita. Second, we prove that colonial institutions constrained the financing of education, but that nonetheless the net effect of the increase in commodity exports always led to a net increase in education expenditures. Finally, we argue that political competition after 1891 led politicians to spend on education, Since only literate adults could vote, we show that increases in expenditures (and increases in revenues from export taxes) led to increases in the number of voters at the state level. 65 pages.

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