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Decentralization Impact on Education: Better Coverage, Deficient Quality

Access to education, particularly quality education, is a proven instrument for increasing employment opportunities, which in turn will improve lifetime income levels, improve health status, and lower pregnancy rates. Recognizing this fact, the Constitution of 1991 established the right to education for all citizens, compulsory for all children from 6 to 15 years of age. Although additional resources have been allocated for improving the coverage and quality of education (Rodriguez 2010), there are still enormous differences in the enrollment rates and quality of education among the Colombian municipalities. Some of these differences are explained by struc?tural factors such as poverty and wealth distribution, while others are related to regional and local aspects such as tax capacity and political processes.

Faguet and Sanchez (2008) and Melo (2005) have shown that from 1993, student enrollment in public schools rose significantly. Thus, the overall enrollment in schools—as a percentage of the population—grew steadily from 22 percent to 25 percent from 1993 to 2009, while public school enrollment increased from 14 percent to 21 percent, indicating that in net terms most of the new students joined the public school system. While Faguet and Sanchez (2009) state that the allocation of municipal resources may be the key factor in explaining the differences in enrollment growth, Melo (2005) argues that the increase in coverage may have been accomplished at the expense of quality.

Although national transfers go strictly by percentages when it comes to allocating money for expenditure on a sector, the local administration reserves the right to spend their own resources as they deem fit, be it on infrastructure, educational material, or on additional teachers, besides the ones hired by the department. The decision in terms of what to spend on is expected to have an impact on the coverage and quality of education. Also, municipal tax capacity further determines the amount that local governments may freely invest from their own resources. The evolution in spending came about, first, during the early decentralization of the 1990s when funds from local resources financed around 8 percent of the total education outlays. This proportion dropped to 2 percent—in part as a consequence of the increase in central government transfers—and rose to more than 10 percent around 2008. Thus, after 2002 and coinciding with the Constitutional Reform of the central government transfer system, as well as the enactment of Law 715, the proportion of educational spending from local resources began to increase.

In terms of quality, the education scenario seems to remain stagnant as demonstrated by the different international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, and by student performance in the Colombian national tests. For example, most of the public schools rank lower in test distribution (ICFES 2009). Nonetheless, the evidence for Colombia is mixed and the different methodologies adopted have been subject to criticism.6

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