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The great leap forward: the political economy of educational improvements in Brazil, 1890-1940

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Brazil at the turn of the twentieth century offers an interesting puzzle. Among the large economies in the Americas it had the lowest level of literacy in 1890, but by 1940 the country had surpassed most of its peers in terms of literacy and had done a significant improvement of its education system. All of this happened in spite of the fact that the Constitution of 1891 included a literacy requirement to vote and gave states the responsibility to spend on education. That is to say, Brazilian states had a significant improvement in education levels and a significant increase in expenditures on education per capita despite having institutions that limited political participation for the masses (Lindert, 2004; Engerman, Mariscal and Sokoloff, 2009) and having one of the worst colonial institutional legacies of the Americas (Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robison, 2001; Easterly and Levine, 2003; and Engerman and Sokoloff, 1997, 2002). This paper explains how state governments got the funds to pay for education and examines the incentives that politicians had to spend on education between 1889 and 1930. Our findings are threefold. First, we show that the Constitution of 1891, which decentralized education and allowed states to collect export taxes to finance expenditures, rendered states with higher windfall tax revenues from the export of commodities to spend more on education per capita. Second, we prove that colonial institutions constrained the financing of education, but that nonetheless the net effect of the increase in commodity exports always led to a net increase in education expenditures. Finally, we argue that political competition after 1891 led politicians to spend on education, Since only literate adults could vote, we show that increases in expenditures (and increases in revenues from export taxes) led to increases in the number of voters at the state level

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