Worlds of Education

Decentralisation and Neoliberal Community Participation in Education

published 8 December 2016 updated 8 December 2016

By Brent Edwards, University of Hawaii

Although decentralisation has for decades been a common theme among education reformers, we must be careful with this term. Not only has its meaning changed over time (Edwards & DeMatthews, 2014) but there are various degrees of decentralisation—ranging, for example, from deconcentration of administrative functions to the devolution of control over resources (Hanson, 1998).  Moreover, decentralisation can lead to negative side effects, particularly in terms of equity, since decentralisation entails some degree of decision-making being moved from the center of an education system to lower units, with those units having access to different levels of resources with which to serve their students. The title of one publication summed up this issue succinctly—“School decentralisation: Helping the good get better, but leaving the poor behind” (Galiani et al., 2008).

Additionally, more extreme forms of decentralisation—e.g., those that place the onus for success, turnaround, or budget control squarely on the school level—have the potential to serve as a pretext for privatisation, either directly or indirectly through such reforms as charter schools, once the public schools have been closed due to underperformance, for example. Of course, decentralisation can also be an empowering experience that results in more meaningful community participation and greater democratic school management (see, e.g., Gandin & Apple, 2002). However, while the language of participation and democracy is often used to support decentralisation, those models advanced globally that are wrapped in the rhetoric of “increased community participation in school management” tend to be founded on arrangements with neoliberal principles at their core. What’s more, there is evidence that these models have been promoted on the basis of problematic evidence.

In relation to this last point, recent research has examined the case of what is, perhaps, the most famous policy for community-based management (CBM) of education (Edwards & Loucel, 2016). This policy, known as Education with Community Participation (EDUCO), began in 1991 in El Salvador as a pilot program in 6 communities, though it went on to become the cornerstone of El Salvador’s education reform during the 1990s, due in part to intense World Bank support. During the 2000s, this program achieved global status by being widely promoted by the World Bank and other international institutions. EDUCO received attention for its radical design, wherein a council of five community parents was legally responsible for hiring and firing teachers, managing the school budget, and purchasing school supplies. Proponents suggested that educational governance under EDUCO should be more accountable, efficient, and effective, and for three reasons: (a) since local community members can monitor their teachers more easily than distant bureaucrats (accountability), (b) since teachers will be absent less and will try harder when they know they are being watched (effectiveness), and (c) since local control of the budget means that funds will be spent only on what is needed (efficiency). Crucially, this reform also accorded with the preferences of many education reformers because it stipulated that teachers in the program would be hired on one-year contracts which precluded them from belonging to the teachers’ union. This feature of the program, together with the guiding principles of accountability, effectiveness, and efficiency, exemplifies its neoliberal nature.

A core reason for the international popularity of the EDUCO program has been the series of 6 studies that were conducted by the World Bank and its consultants between 1994 and 2006. These studies gave legitimacy to the EDUCO model of CBM generally because research by the World Bank is seen as being rigorous and credible and specifically because of the positive results claimed (e.g., related to better math/language scores and reduced student absences). However, a careful review of the methods and data on which these studies are based suggests that we cannot be certain of any of the claimed findings due to issues of lack of background controls, sample selection bias, and endogeneity, among others (Edwards & Loucel, 2016). Nevertheless, the studies have been picked up and used by such institutions as the World Bank, UNESCO, Global Partnership for Education, and Brookings Institution, among others, to promote the EDUCO model of CBM.

One lesson from the EDUCO case is that we must be skeptical of claims that are made by international organisations when it comes to what their research shows, particularly when such organisations can benefit from the results of that research (and particularly in the case of the World Bank, which both funds reform and then evaluates that reform). Second, we must be aware that, in practice, EDUCO had multiple negative side effects, including weakening teachers unions, reducing teacher job security, requiring parents from marginalised communities to work on a volunteer basis to manage their community schools, and, most generally, the creation of a two-tiered education system in El Salvador wherein primarily rural schools -which are already marginalised within the system- and the communities that ran them were given additional responsibilities without additional support or compensation.

Going forward, we also need to ensure that community-involvement means more than just the creation of mechanisms for teacher accountability and the contribution of unpaid labor. Models of decentralisation should be sought out that combine community empowerment in school management together with (a) democratic management of the community more generally and (b) multiple levels and forms of support to the community, its schools, and its teachers. Since schools are embedded in broader community contexts, we must ensure that schools are supported in conjunction with their communities, and in a way that addresses the threat of exacerbating inequity because of differential resource endowment across communities.


Edwards Jr., D. B., & DeMatthews, D. (2014). Historical trends ineducational decentralization in the United States and developing countries: Aperiodization and comparison in the post-WWII context Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22 (40), 1-36.

Edwards Jr., D. B. & Loucel, C. (2016). The EDUCO Program, impactevaluations, and the political economy of global education reform Education Policy Analysis Archives, 24(49).

Galiani, S. and Schargrodsky, E. (2010). School decentralization: Helping the good get better, but leaving the poor behind, Journal of Public Economics, 92 (10-11), 2106-2120.

Gandin, L. A., & Apple, M. A. (2002). Challenging neo-liberalism, building democracy: creating the citizen school in Porto Alegre, Brazil, journal of education policy . Journal of Education Policy, 17 (2), 259-279.

Hanson, E. M. (1998). Strategies of educational decentralization: Key questions and core issues. Journal of Educational Administration, 36 (2), 111-128.

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