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  • In most developing countries, responsibility forproviding primary and secondary education hasresided with the central government. However, agrowing number of countries throughout theworld, including those in East Asia, are transfer-ring this responsibility away from the center, typi-cally as part of a broader reform to decentralizegovernment functions. This transfer has taken var-ious forms, including devolving fiscal responsibil-ity and management to lower levels of govern-ment, making public schools autonomous,requiring the participation of communities inoperating schools, expanding community financ-ing, allowing families to choose their schools, andstimulating private provision of education. Theimpetus for decentralization has often been politi-cal or financial rather than educational, yet sup-porters of decentralization would argue that it canaddress difficult problems confronting educationsystems, especially those relating to performanceand accountability. Education systems areextremely demanding of the managerial, technical,and financial capacity of governments, so thepotential returns to making such systems moreefficient and effective are great.

    The promise of decentralization lies in givingmore voice and power to local leaders and school



    Education Reformsin East Asia:

    Policy, Process, and Impact

    Elizabeth M. King and Susana Cordeiro Guerra

    personnel, who presumably know more about localeducational problems than national officials, andwho have an incentive to lobby for more resourcesand to innovate. Indeed, as the broader decentraliza-tion literature suggests, the benefits of decentraliza-tion lie in reinforcing accountability among thoseresponsible for delivering servicesbetween the cen-tral government and local governments, betweengovernments and school personnel, and betweenschool personnel and the communities they serve(Ahmad et al. 1998).1 In countries as large and diverseas China and Indonesia, generating local solutions toeducational problems and mobilizing local energiesand resources can yield dividends for all.

    Despite its promises, however, decentralizationis not a policy panacea. As this chapter shows,choosing an appropriate design for transformingan education system is difficult. Whats more, thereform process is never smooth. It is likely to bepunctuated by bursts of progress and frequent set-backs, which may lead to rising frustration andgrowing mistrust among stakeholders who seethemselves as losers under the reform process.

    This chapter reviews the experiences of EastAsian countries in decentralizing their educationsystems, with the goal of understanding thechallenges of designing reforms, distilling lessons

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  • 180 East Asia Decentralizes

    on implementation, and examining the impact oneducational development. Decentralization lawstypically stipulate dramatic reallocations ofauthority and responsibility among levels of gov-ernment and also transfers of resources. However,the experience in East Asiaand, indeed, innearly all countries that have decentralizedsug-gests a lack of congruence between design andimplementation, or between de jure and de factodecentralization.

    Several factors have given rise to this incongru-ence: incomplete design and implementation lags,which may be due to weak technical and adminis-trative capacity, and lack of broad political supportfor reform. For example, central agencies are notshy about transferring responsibilities for financingand delivering education services to local govern-ments but are not as eager to share correspondingauthority and resources, and so find ways ofreasserting control. Local governments that aresupposed to yield some decision-making authorityto schools may also hold back from doing so.Indeed, two common challenges are to align func-tions, powers, and resources among levels of gov-ernments, and to define an appropriate role for thecentral authority within a decentralized system.Achieving a better alignment of functions, powers,and resources is primarily a matter of improvingdesign in some countries, and of improving imple-mentation in others.

    The next section examines the rationale fordecentralization in East Asian countries. Theprincipal motives rarely relate to expanding orimproving public services, so the allocation offunctions and resources often does not provide acoordinated framework for managing servicesmore effectively. The third section reviews thenature and design of education reforms in thesecountries, as well as their implementation. This sec-tion focuses on the overall legislative framework:how decentralization has changed governance andmanagement; which responsibilities and functionscountries have devolved; whether resources areadequate to act on these; whether the structure ofthe system is aligned with the changes; and whatfunctions the central agency has retained. EastAsian countries reveal common design features butalso important differences, emerging partly fromdifferences in motivation for reform, initialconditions, and the political milieu.

    The fourth section reviews evidence on theimpact of decentralization and the factors that haveinfluenced its effectiveness. Because educationaldevelopment is rarely the rationale for decentral-ization, there is no guarantee that the reform will,in fact, improve education outcomes. With theexception of China, East Asias experience withdecentralizing education is fairly recent and re-search on its impact nascent, so the review focuseson shifts in education expenditures and on inequal-ity, and then relies on lessons from around theworld to evaluate the impact of decentralization onlearning. The final section summarizes key findingsand lessons about decentralization given experi-ences in the East Asian countries.

    The Impetus for DecentralizingEducation

    Educational achievement in parts of East Asia ismuch admired. Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan,and Hong Kong have achieved high enrollmentrates and high-quality education, with their stu-dents consistently topping international tests (seetable 9.1) (Martin et al. 2004a and 2004b). OtherEast Asian countries have not done as well, but they,too, have achieved high enrollment rates (see figure9.1). These countries face other educational chal-lenges: The emerging economies of China, Indone-sia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand mustbetter manage their education systems to reducedisparities between wealthier and poorer regions,and to improve the overall quality of education. Thepoorer countriesLaos, Cambodia, and Papua NewGuineamust expand the number of children whoenter school, cut the number who drop out at theprimary level, ensure that the system producesenough talent to support economic growth anddevelopment, and address difficult problems infinancing and managing their education systems.

    These challenges, however, have not been the pri-mary rationale and main driving force behind effortsto decentralize the education systems in these coun-tries. Rather, political factors and fiscal concerns havebeen the impetus.2 Key design aspects of reformincluding central-local transfers, local tax authority,and civil service rulesmay therefore ignore legal,financial, and administrative issues that are critical forachieving national education goals, and may establishstructures and incentives that imperil those goals.

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  • In China, decentralization of education can betraced to the decollectivization and economic liber-alization reforms of the 1970s, which laid thegroundwork for transferring responsibility forsocial services to local governments. Fiscal con-straints on the central government were also seen asa primary motive for that transfer (Hawkins 2000;Bray 1999; Cheng 1997). In Indonesia, politicalfactorsa national call for democracy, the end ofthe Soeharto regime, the failures of the highly cen-tralistic government, intensified by the financialcrisis of 1997drove the decision to decentralize

    all but a few sectors in 1999 (World Bank 2003a). Inthe Philippines, the 1987 Constitution mandateddecentralization, and the 1991 Local GovernmentCode provided legal guidelines for transferringresponsibility for providing services to subnationalgovernments. Except for the transfer of construc-tion and maintenance of school buildings to localgovernments, however, the Philippines has notformally decentralized governance of elementaryeducation. Political considerations underlie thisexception. One often-cited reason is that publicschoolteachers have traditionally counted votes

    Education Reforms in East Asia: Policy, Process, and Impact 181

    TABLE 9.1 Student Performance on Mathematics and Science Tests(ranking among 38 countries)

    Mathematics score and rank Science score and rank

    Country 1999 2003 1999 2003

    Singapore 604 (1) 605 (1) 568 (2) 578 (1)Korea 587 (2) 589 (2) 549 (5) 558 (3)Taiwan 585 (3) 569 (1) Hong Kong 582 (4) 586 (3) 530 (15) 556 (4)Japan 579 (5) 570 (5) 550 (4) 552 (6)Malaysia 519 (16) 508 (13) 492 (22) 510 (21)Thailand 467 (27) 482 (24) Indonesia 403 (34) 411(35) 435 (32) 420 (27)Philippines 348 (36) 378 (42) 345 (36) 377 (43)

    Sources: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 1999 and Martin et al. 2004a and 2004b.Note: not available. Scores reported are for eighth grade. Ranking is among 38 countries (1999) and46 countries (2003).

    FIGURE 9.1 Net Enrollment Rates in East Asia, 2000




























    a, Re

    p. o




    Note: Countries are listed according to their gross domestic product per capita for 2002from Cambodia toRepublic of Korea. Data on Thailands and Chinas net enrollment rates at the secondary level are not available.

    Sources: UNESCO 2002/2003; World Bank 2003b.



    primary level secondary level

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  • during elections, so decentralization would makethem vulnerable to local politics, possibly compro-mising election results (Loehr and Manasan 1999).3

    In Thailand, decentralization is said to resultfrom the groundswell of support for greater democ-racy, shared powers and resources between the cen-tral government and local levels, and greateraccountability, culminating in the 1997 Constitu-tion (Mutebi 2003; Weist 2001). The motivation fordecentralization in Cambodia was also predomi-nantly political: building democratic governance ina country ruled by centralized power for most of itsmodern history. Because the regime that emergedfrom a long civil war was marked by rigid organiza-tion, inefficiency, leakage of funds, budget allocationdifficulties, and little community participation, civilsociety and the development community pushed todeconcentrate government functions to improveservice delivery, especially for the poor (RoyalKingdom of Cambodia 2001).

    The Design and Practice of Education Decentralization

    The design of decentralized education across EastAsian countries reflects common features. One isthat devolved education systems rest on multilay-ered governance and management structures, withthe result that forging a coherent national policyrequires a much larger effort. Central and interme-diate (provincial, state, municipality, and district)levels of government generally continue to governpost-basic education, but the lowest level ofgovernment, and even schools themselves, governbasic education.

    Chinas policy stipulates multiple layers of edu-cational supervision involving the National Educa-tional Supervision Agency as well as correspondingagencies in local governments (Hawkins 2000;Wang 2004). The provincial level takes responsibil-ity for developing specific local policies and regula-tions in line with national education objectives.The local governmentthe township level in ruralareas (the lowest level of the bureaucracy withouteducation offices), and the district level in urbansettings (with education offices)has responsibil-ity for ensuring that all children receive nine yearsof compulsory education. Earlier implementationrevealed inadequate capacity of township govern-ments to manage schools, so local responsibility for

    financing and managing basic education in ruralareas was transferred from township to the countylevel in 2001.4 In 2002, the Peoples Congress passedthe Private Education Promotion Law, whichdefined the legal status as well as the rights andresponsibilities of the private sector, further open-ing the door for diversified provision and multiplesources of funding for education (Wang 2004).

    In Indonesia, Laws 22 and 25 of 1999 transferredgovernance and management of primary and jun-ior secondary education to district governments,and the upper secondary level to provincial govern-ments, while the central government retains con-trol of the tertiary level. The Education Law 20 of2003 takes decentralization a step further, movingcontrol of basic levels of education from districts toschools (World Bank 2004a). In Cambodia, recentlaws have transferred functions and powersincluding the provision of public servicesto com-munes, and the country plans to boost accountabil-ity further by increasing theoperational autonomyof schools and postsecondary institutions (RoyalKingdom of Cambodia 2001).5

    A second common feature of decentralizededucation across East Asia is that, at the deepestlevel, the vehicles for governance and manage-ment are typically community councils andschool committees involving local officials, civicleaders, and parents. In Thailand, each school issupposed to have a board composed of represen-tatives of parents, teachers, community organiza-tions, alumni, and students. Parents organizationswith jurisdiction over schools are to establish aquality assurance system, and communities areurged to participate in educational provision bycontributing their experience, knowledge, expert-ise and local wisdom for educational benefits(Kingdom of Thailand 1999). In Indonesia, eachschool is supposed to have a School Committeedeclared an independent body by the 2003 Educa-tion Lawto provide advice, direction, and sup-port for managing schools (Government ofIndonesia 2003). In China, school principals arecharged with greater responsibility than in thepast but also enjoy more autonomy. They areexpected to generate additional resources for theschool and ensure teaching quality, because theycan choose teachers without much interventionfrom the district or county, as well as determineincentives for teachers (Wang 2004).

    182 East Asia Decentralizes

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  • Such deep decentralization is common outsidethe region, too, a means not only of mobilizinglocal resources but also of fostering greateraccountability and better performance. In Brazil,reform in several states has entailed establishingschool councils, allowing the direct transfer ofresources to schools, and giving communities thepower to elect the local principal. El SalvadorsCommunity-Managed...


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