Can school centralization foster human capital accumulation? A quasi-experiment from early twentieth-century Italy

July 22, 2019 | Blog
Home > Can school centralization foster human capital accumulation? A quasi-experiment from early twentieth-century Italy

By Gabriele Cappelli (University of Siena) and Michelangelo Vasta (University of Siena)

The article is available on Early View at the Economic History Review’s link here


The issue of school reform is a key element of institutional change across countries. In developing economies the focus is rapidly shifting from increasing enrolments to improving educational outputs (literacy and skills) and outcomes (wages and productivity). In advanced economies, policy-makers focus on generating skills from educational inputs despite limited resources. This is unsurprising, because human capital formation is largely acknowledged as one of the main factors of economic growth.

Related to education policy, reforms have long focused on the way that the school systems can be organized, particularly its management and funding by local v. central government. On the one hand, local policy makers are more aware of the needs of local communities, which is supposed to improve schooling. On the other hand, school preferences might vary considerably between the central government and the local ruling elites, hampering the diffusion of education. Despite the importance of the topic, there is little historical research on this topic.

In this paper, we offer fresh evidence using a quasi-experiment that aims to explore dramatic changes in Italy’s educational institutions at the beginning of the 20th century, i.e. the 1911 Daneo-Credaro Reform. Due to this legislation, most municipalities moved from a decentralized school system, which had been based on the 1859 Casati Law, to direct state management and funding, while other municipalities, mainly provincial and district capitals, retained their autonomy, thus forming two distinct groups (Figure 1).

The Reform design allows us to compare these two groups through a quasi-experiment based on an innovative technique, namely Propensity Score Matching (henceforth PSM). PSM tackles an issue with the Reform that we study, namely that the assignment into treatment (centralization) of the municipalities is not random: the municipalities that retained school autonomy were those characterized by high literacy. By contrast, the poorest and less literate municipalities were more likely to end up under state control, implying that the analysis of the Daneo-Credaro Reform as an experiment will tend to overestimate the impact of centralization. PSM tackles the issue by ‘randomizing’ the selection into treatment: a statistical model is used to estimate the probability of being selected into centralization (propensity score) for each municipality; then, an algorithm matches municipalities in the treatment group with municipalities in the control group that have an equal (or very similar) propensity score – meaning that the only different feature will be whether they are treated or not. To perform PSM, we construct a novel database at the municipal level (a large sample of 1,000+ comuni). Secondly, we fill a gap in the historiography by providing an in-depth discussion of the way that the Reform worked, which has so far been neglected.

Figure 1 – Municipalities that still retained school autonomy in Italy by 1923. Source: Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione (1923), Relazione sul numero, la distribuzione e il funzionamento delle scuole elementari. Rome. Note: both the grey and black dots represent municipalities that retained school autonomy by 1923, while the others (not shown in the map) had shifted to centralized school management and funding. 

We find that the municipalities that switched to state control were characterized by a 0.43 percentage-point premium on the average annual growth of literacy between 1911 and 1921, compared to those that retained autonomy (Table 1). The estimated coefficient means that two very similar municipalities with equal literacy rates at 60% in 1911 will have a literacy gap equal to 3 percentage points in 1921, i.e. 72.07% (school autonomy) vs 75.17% (treated). This difference is similar to the gap between the treatment group and a counterfactual that we estimated in a robustness check based on Italian provinces (Figure 2).

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Table 1 – Estimated treatment (Daneo-Credaro Reform) effect, 1911 – 1921.
Figure 2 – Literacy rates in the treatment and control groups, 1881 – 1921, pseudo-DiD. Source: see original article

Centralization improved the overall functioning of the school system and the efficiency of school funding. First, it reduced the distance between the central government and the city councils by granting more decision-making power to the provincial schooling board under the supervision of the central government. Thus, the control exercised by the Ministry reassured teachers that their salary would be increased, and the government could now guarantee that they would be paid regularly, which was not always the case when the municipalities managed primary schooling. Secondly, additional funding was provided to build new schools. The resultant increase appears to have been very large and its impact was amplified by the full reorganization of the school system. The funds could be directed to where they were most needed. Consequently, we argue, a mere increase in funding without institutional change would have been less effective in increasing literacy rates.
To conclude, the 50-year persistence of decentralized primary schooling hampered the accumulation of human capital and regional convergence in basic education, thus casting a long shadow on the future pace of aggregate and regional economic growth. The centralization of primary education via the Daneo-Credaro Reform in 1911 was a major breakthrough, which fostered the spread of literacy and allowed the country to reduce the human-capital gap with the most advanced economies.


To contact the author: Gabriele Cappelli


Twitter: gabercappe