The Journal of Economic History


The Uneven Rise of American Public Schools to 1850

Sun Goa1 and Peter Linderta2

a1 Visiting Fellow, Korea Institute of Public Finance (KIPF), 28 Bangjugmalgil, Songpa-gu, Seoul 138-774, Korea. E-mail:

a2 Distinguished Professor of Economics, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616. E-mail:


Three factors help to explain why school enrollments in the Northern United States were higher than those in the South and in most of Europe by 1850. One was affordability: the northern schools had lower direct costs relative to income. The second was the greater autonomy of local governments. The third was the greater diffusion of voting power among the citizenry in much of the North, especially in rural communities. The distribution of local political voice appears to be a robust predictor of tax support and enrollments, both within and between regions. Extra local voice raised tax support without crowding out private support for education.


The authors are indebted to Stanley L. Engerman, Christopher Hanes, Ilyana Kuziemko, Thomas Mayer, Paul Rhode, Gavin Wright, anonymous referees, the editors, and seminar participants at Duke, Kansas, Stanford, the All-UC Group in Economic History, and the Cliometric Societys ASSA session for helpful comments on an earlier draft. An expanded version of this article is available as NBER Working Paper 13335, and underlying regression and data sets are available on our homepages: and