Dissertation Project: 

Tentative Title: The Political Economy of Education Reform in Latin America

In recent years, Latin American countries have implemented differing strategies to reform public education. Because most reforms were initiated under the guise of improving the quality of education, scholars have sought to link reforms to educational outcomes, such as gains in learning. However, little research investigates the prior question of what drove these reform efforts in the first place? Without understanding why some countries undertook reforms and others did not, we lack insight into why some reforms succeed while others fail. I examine the ways in which international factors, such as regional conferences on education and international comparative testing initiatives, generated pressures to reform, and how they affected reform success or failure alongside other relevant variables—such as the strength of teachers unions and electoral incentives. To support this inquiry, I create a novel measure of institutional arrangements over public education, and draw on cross-national statistical analysis and an in-depth study of a deviant case. The project contributes to our understanding of the conditions under which key political actors support or hinder education reform initiatives, with implications beyond education research. Only once we have good answers to these questions can we proceed to evaluate when changes in institutions, policy, or spending are related to educational outcomes.

Working Papers:   

  • The Non-Redistributive Effects of Constitutional Courts on Educational Outcomes in Latin America

Constitutional courts, specialized tribunals that deal with constitutional matters, have recently drawn scrutiny from researchers, political observers, and citizens. In Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world, these courts have been associated with the extension of basic social and economic rights–such as rights to health and education–to poor and marginalized communities. But this raises a puzzle. In regions defined by economic and political inequality, such as Latin America, why would dominant political actors lay down expansive social and economic rights protections, create strong constitutional courts, and afford these courts the tools to undo the very institutions of inequality that sustain elites in power? I argue that pressures of diffusion combine with judicial independence to explain the pattern of adoption of constitutional courts in Latin America. As countries around the region increasingly adopted constitutional courts to praise from international human rights activists, legislators were under mounting pressure to do the same. But constitutional courts do not need to come at a high redistributive cost. When judicial independence is weak, elites can be fairly sure that courts will not act against their interests. It thus follows that (i) constitutional courts will appear in contexts of low judicial independence as diffusion-pressures increase and (ii) that constitutional courts should be generally unrelated to improvements in social spending and outcomes. I test my theoretical framework on a panel data set of 17 Latin American countries between 1990 and 2012. My preliminary regressions show strong support for these expectations.  Draft here. [A previous version of this paper was presented at MPSA version (3/30) here.]

  • Capital Mobility and Democratization: The Role of the Foreign Elites, with Carly Potz-Nielsen

Previous literature has linked the integration of financial markets since the 1970s to democratization. While this literature has addressed the impacts of capital account openness on democratization, it has largely ignored the role of the foreign investor. We seek to demonstrate that different types of investors have particular political preferences over democratization, particularly with regard to the stability of property rights, and that these preferences affect the probability of democratization. Focusing on regimes since the 1970s, we argue that investors with relatively low-mobility capital will have a higher stake in the political trajectory of their host country and as a result will act more forcefully to defend their investments from the expropriatory impulses of autocrats. Conversely, high-mobility capital investors will be relatively uninterested in local political developments because the cost of market exit is low. We test the statistical relationship between regime type and capital account openness and find that as the proportion of low-mobility investors, relative to high-mobility, grows, so too does the probability of democratization. [ISA version (1/22) here.]

  • Human Rights Reports and the Organizations that Produce Them, with Carly Potz-Nielsen and Robert Ralston

Human rights reports produced by Amnesty International and the United States’ State Department are used by researchers and policymakers alike to understand the human rights conditions within countries across time. In particular, these reports are used to develop quantitative indices of human rights violations. A recent debate in the human rights literature has suggested that the coding of such reports carries substantial potential for bias. We test the argument that popular human rights monitoring reports are subject to both data-generating and standards-based “information effects,” and argue that these “information effects” can be understood as a measurement problem that biases inferences made from human rights reports. We use two computer-assisted text analysis methods–generating event counts and analyzing the latent semantic space in which documents reside–to analyze the manifest features of the reports that give clues as to how documents change (or do not) over time. We also interview individuals familiar with the drafting and editing process at both Amnesty International and the State Department. Our findings suggest that organizational effects, namely “procedural biases” make it difficult to use these reports in the manner in which they are often used. This has important implications for scholars interested broadly in looking “under the hood” of popular sources for human rights and political violence-based data.[MPSA version (3/30) here.]

  •   Bleeding But Not Leading?: US Political Dynamics and Bias in International Event Data, with Sarah Parkinson and Ben Bagozzi

How reliable are measures of political violence events? We examine how US military occupation and US election cycles affect the levels of civil unrest reported in one commonly used media derived conflict event dataset: the Social, Political, and Economic Event Database. We contend that US election cycles should detract from media coverage of international civil unrest events, especially among US focused media sources. Using a seasonally adjusted measure of international civil unrest events, we then specifically evaluate whether US election cycles are associated with changes in the monthly levels of civil unrest abroad, both globally and for US occupied countries more specifically. In doing so, we find consistent evidence to suggest that while foreign countries generally exhibit higher levels of civil unrest during US election cycles; occupied countries exhibit fewer conflict events during these same periods. Preliminary evidence suggests that reporting bias plays a partial role in these counterintuitive findings.