We investigate whether democracy enhances the skills and knowledge of citizens through improving education quality. This, in turn, could have ramifications for other development outcomes such as economic growth. We offer the first systematic cross-national study on democracy and education quality. Democracy is widely regarded as superior to autocracy in terms of providing access to education, and several studies find that democracy enhances educational enrollment and years of schooling. Yet, we do not know whether democracies provide better education. We argue that democracies should not too readily be expected to outperform autocracies on education quality. First, it is inherently difficult to implement quality-enhancing education reforms, even for well-intentioned (democratic and autocratic) governments with ample resources. Second, education quality is less visible to voters than, e.g., expanding education enrollment, making quality-enhancing policies a less attractive option for office-seeking democratic politicians. We employ a recent dataset comparing international student tests for 128 countries, from 1965 onward. While democracies typically provide “more” education than autocracies, we find no systematic evidence that democracies offer better education. The result is very robust and holds in both cross-section and panel specifications. The null-relationship is not explained simply by democracies providing education access to more (and different types of) children than autocracies, and it appears both in rich and poor and in low- and high-capacity states. We also present relevant nuances: for instance, autocracies display more variation in education quality outcomes than democracies, and we find some evidence that democracy may be associated, more specifically, with better reading skills. In sum, this study provides new insights to the democracy and education literature, where extant studies often report strong links between democracy and various education outcomes not directly related to education quality, and informs literatures linking democracy to development outcomes such as growth via effects on human capital.
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