How electoral cycles affect school systems – evidence from India

Public sector schools operate within the broader context of political systems and the management of school systems can be influenced by political factors. Yet, there is a lack of quantitative or causal evidence on how political factors shape education systems and outcomes in developing countries (see for example, Kingdon et al. 2014). The persistently poor quality of public service provision in developing countries in the key sector of education, provides an important motivation for studying the political economy of education systems.

Teachers clearly play a pivotal role in the provision of education, and political factors can affect their allocation. Our study, presented at UNU-WIDER's Human capital and growth conference, provides evidence of this for Indian public primary school teachers for the period between 2005-11. We show that the electoral cycles effect on the management of teachers can affect educational performance.

The Indian electoral cycle

The hiring and recruitment of teachers is the responsibility of Indian states, and in our study we focus on the timing of state assembly elections. By constitution, the assembly elections are carried out in each state every five years. However, the timing varies across states, so that elections are held in some of the 36 Indian states and territories in each year. This feature allows us to identify the effects of the elections on teacher transfers, hiring, and learning. 

Teacher transfers peak the year after elections

We find that teacher mobility, or teacher transfers increase significantly (roughly 50%) during the academic year starting after the election year. There is also a more moderate increase in the number of newly-hired teachers. We suggest two potential explanations. The Election Commission of India's 'Model Code of Conduct' imposes a ban on the transfers of government employees who are connected with election duties in the run-up to elections. Teachers perform election duties and therefore the ban may create a back-log in transfers and hiring. This has explicitly been reported as an issue in at least Bihar and Haryana states (Jha et al. 2008: 332). The post-election peak in transfers and hiring could also be explained by a post-election momentum of the incoming new government.

Students suffer when teacher transfers increase

Having established these patterns, we ask whether the increased post-election mobility and restructuring of teachers could disturb pupil performance. In particular, we analyse whether avoiding the post-election phase during the first four years of schooling is beneficial for learning. Given the limitations in measures of pupil performance in the DISE database, we use a separate dataset (ASER household survey) for the same time period. Our findings indicate that fourth graders who avoided the school year starting after the election year, have up to 0.15 standard deviations higher test scores. This is equivalent to approximately 1/3-1/2 of the average increase in test scores per school year.

Alternative explanations for learning cycles

Learning in the post-election period can evidently be affected by a number of factors. Our analysis suggests that the cycles in learning cannot be explained by changes in pupil composition, or by politically-induced cycles in crime. On the other hand, the effects on learning are more pronounced in districts where teachers are more likely to transfer after the elections. Also importantly, the test scores of pupils who go to private schools are largely unaffected by the electoral cycle.

Overall, these findings indicate that in India the allocation of teachers is influenced by the electoral cycle, with implications for the quality of service delivery. With respect to timing, the effects on learning coincide with the election-induced mobility and reorganization of teachers, and the size of these effects on learning is not trivial.

The broader relevance

The results on the electoral cycles in teacher transfers and learning can be considered symptomatic of impairments in the management of these services. Given that learning in private schools is unaffected by the electoral cycle, our findings also provide a potential new explanation as to why private schools have been found to be better or more cost-effective in India (for example, Muralidharan and Sundraraman 2015).

Further Information:

Link to the study: Teachers, Electoral Cycles and Learning in India [.pdf]


ASER (2014). Annual Status of Education Report, 2014. ASER Centre, Delhi.

Jha, Praveen, Subrat Das, Siba Sankar Mohanty and Nandan Kumar Jha (2008). Public Provisioning for Elementary Education in India. SAGE International Publishing House, New Delhi.

Kingdon, Geeta Gandhi, Angela Little, Monazza Aslam, Shenila Rawal, Terry Moe, Patrinos, Harry Patrinos, Tara Beteille, Rukmini Banerji, Brent Parton, and Shailendra K. Sharma (2014). A Rigorous Review of the Political Economy of Education Systems in Developing Countries. Final Report. Education Rigorous Literature Review. London: Department for International Development

Muralidharan, Karthik, and Venkatesh Sundararaman (2015). The Aggregate Effect of School Choice: Evidence from a Two-Stage Experiment in India. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(3): 1011-66.


Sonja Fagernäs is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sussex. Panu Pelkonen is a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sussex.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.

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