Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Expensive Lessons: Education and the Political Economy of the American State

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Expensive Lessons: Education and the Political Economy of the American State

Article excerpt

Economic development has long been an important focus of state politics; and political scientists have devoted considerable effort to analyzing the ability of policymakers to influence local economic conditions. Unfortunately, analysis in this area of state politics has been hampered by the lack of a stable and generalizable model of state-level political economy We seek to contribute to such a model by arguing that previous research theoretically and empirically under-specifies a crucial element of the explanatory framework--education. We provide a theoretical argument for a more complex relationship between education and local economic conditions and find strong support for our arguments in a pooled analysis of state-level productivity

Political science has long sought to establish whether state governments have the policymaking capability to influence local economic conditions, and also whether such influence can be generated independent of national trends (Dye 1980; Hendrick and Garand 1991; Brace 1991, 1993; Lange and Garrett 1985). The reason for such an interest is not hard to fathom. As Jones (1990: 219) argues, much of state politics historically centers on "the provision of infrastructure and economic growth." During the past decade economic development has emerged as the primary object of policymaking in the states. As Brace and Jewett (1995: 662) observe, it is the "Esperanto of state politics . . . [and] virtually every policy is now weighed by its anticipated impact on economic development."

A centerpiece of state-level attempts to promote economic development and investment is education. For example, as governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton's "first priority" was to overhaul the state's public schools. The reason? "(L)ow education levels of the work force are perhaps the biggest stumbling block to economic growth" (Osborne 1988). Clinton's focus was far from unique--education reform at the state level is frequently abetted by the assumption that a sub-par education system has negative local economic consequences (Olson 1997). Academics who study the political economy of the states generally give a good deal of credence to this assumption and have accordingly given education a prominent theoretical role in models of state-level education performance (e.g., Jones 1990; Brace 1993).

The empirical record, however, has produced very mixed results regarding the connection between education policy or performance and state-level economic conditions. For example, Jones (1990) reports that, depending on the measure of economic development, education is a positive influence, a negative influence, a negative and a positive influence depending on time period, and/or (most commonly) an insignificant influence. The checkered findings demonstrate a fundamental irony in the literature on state-level political economy: faith in a positive causal relationship between education and economic performance at the state level persists in spite of the empirical record generated by this research effort, rather than because of it.

The fact is that while economic development is a central component of state politics and policymaking, and education is widely assumed to play an important role in this mix, the extant research has largely failed to show a convincing relationship between education and state-level economic development. Why has the research on state-level political economy found it so difficult to locate a relationship that both policymakers and academics seem convinced exists?


One possible answer to this conundrum is the unit of analysis. If the dependent variable is economic in nature and the independent variable is education, states can be argued to be an odd or inappropriate unit of analysis on both counts. States are dependent upon a national economy they have little control over and have much less control over their local economies than do their national counterparts. …

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