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Filipe Recch

Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - 9:00am to 10:30am
Fall 2019
LC Conference Room

Intergovernmental relations in a federalist system: Policy alignment and student achievement differences in the state of São Paulo/Brazil

Public schools in Brazil's complex education system are managed in each state by both state and municipal administrations, particularly at the primary and middle school levels (1st to 9th grades). These parallel school administrations in the same school districts (municipalities) may affect the offerings of public education and generate differences in the quality of schooling experienced by students in each system (Abrucio, 2010; Costa, 2010; Cury, 2010; and Arretche, 2004). The impact on student performance of having two parallel school systems in the same territory is a central debate in the provision of public education in Brazil, due to the country’s cooperative federalist system. Furthermore, the analysis of possible influences of federalist design is a major part of policy analysis in political science (Kincaid, 1990). The balance between centralization and decentralization of a federalist system is central to effective governance and deeply affects the structures of policies in such contexts, thereby influencing policy outcomes.

This paper intends to evaluate the relationship between student test scores, educational inequality, and policy alignment between relevant governing bodies (which in the Brazilian context are the municipal and state governments). The research in this paper contributes to the understanding of how sharing responsibility for the provision of public education between two levels of government within a federalist country may influence student learning and educational inequality. Yet, this debate is not limited to the Brazilian context. Parallel educational systems exist in other circumstances – such as public and charter schools in the United States – and may generate disparate quality in schooling provision. In fact, intergovernmental relations are central to policy implementation in most federalist countries. By examining such a widely relevant phenomenon, this paper also contributes to the debate on educational equity.

Brazilian states are relevant to studying this wider scenario due to particular characteristics of their educational systems. Within each state, both municipal and state administrative units have distinct control over their components of public education, sharing the same territory. Typically, municipal governments control all local primary and some local middle schools while state governments control some local middle and most local high schools. In São Paulo, the state focused on in this study, the share of enrollment in state and municipal schools has been changing, with municipal systems increasingly having more prominence with enrollment in middle schools. However, the state administration still controls a sizable share of enrollment at that level.

While municipal school policies and management vary across municipalities, state-run schools are subject to the same policies statewide. Therefore, state administrations in Brazil develop policies that are standardized across all schools within the state system – a centralized strategy. Thus, educational policy at the state level is standardized for all state schools, regardless of the municipalities they are in. Municipal schools, on the other hand, have their policies dictated at the municipal level and change from one municipality to another. This study uses the variation in educational policies across municipalities and the state to understand the relationship between policy alignment and students’ achievement gap between state and municipal schools in the state of São Paulo.

The main challenge in this research is measuring cooperation or policy alignment. Here, I suggest a proxy for policy alignment based on the long-term plans for educational policy in Brazil. Based on an action initiated by the federal government, all states and municipalities in Brazil were mandated to develop and legally approve a long-term plan for education by June 2015. These plans contain the main goals and policy strategies that federal, state, and municipal governments aim to implement during the 10 years following the approval of their respective plans.

Considering the importance given to these plans nationally and in the media, it is not far-fetched to assume that most plans show at least the idealized scenario for education in Brazil. It certainly does not mean that this ideal scenario is necessarily what will be carried out. Nevertheless, these plans are good references for what different administrations in Brazil consider to be the main challenges and potentials of their educational systems. Hence, I use these plans to compare how similar municipal level long-term educational plans are to the state long-term plan in São Paulo. I do so using an unsupervised machine learning technique – latent dirichlet allocation (LDA) model and topic modeling – to recover main themes of each document. Each document is then assigned an estimated prevalence of each topic, and a vector of topic prevalence is generated for each document. Finally, the automated analysis of each municipal plan is compared to that of the state level long-term plan so as to create a measure of similarity. Based on this proxy for policy alignment, I show that greater alignment is associated with smaller differences in student test scores (gains over time and level by grade) between students who attend municipal and state schools within the same territory.  


Abrucio, F. L. (2010). A dinâmica federativa da educação brasileira: diagnóstico e propostas de aperfeiçoamento. Educação e federalismo no Brasil: combater as desigualdades, garantir a diversidade. Brasília: UNESCO, 2010, 01-29.

Costa, V. M. F. (2010). Federalismo e relações intergovernamentais: implicações para a reforma da educação no Brasil. Educação & Sociedade, 31(112), 729-748.

Arretche, M. (2004). Federalismo e políticas sociais no Brasil: problemas de coordenação e autonomia. São Paulo em perspectiva, 18(2), 17-26.

Cury, C. R. J. (2010). A questão federativa e a educação escolar. Educação e federalismo no Brasil: combater as desigualdades, garantir a diversidade. Brasília: UNESCO, 149-168.

Kincaid, J. (1990). From cooperative to coercive federalism. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 509(1), 139-152.