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Neoliberalism, Transnational Education Norms, and Education Spending in the Developing World, 1983–2004


Minzee Kim is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Elizabeth Heger Boyle is Professor of Sociology & Law at the University of Minnesota. Together, they would like to thank Greg Shaffer and the students in his Transnational Transformations of the State class for extensive feedback on this project. They would also like to thank Kristin Haltinner for her valuable research help; Kiyoteru Tsutsui, Christine Min Wotipka, and Pamela Paxton for sharing their own data; anonymous reviewers, Karen Mundy, John W. Meyer and the members of the University of Minnesota Globalization Group, especially Evan Schofer, Ann Hironaka, and Wesley Longhofer for their valuable comments. Please address correspondence to Minzee Kim ( or Elizabeth Boyle (, University of Minnesota, Sociology Department, 909 Social Sciences Building, Minneapolis, MN 55455.


Using the case of education, we consider how global cultural and economic forces affect national education spending policies. Our analysis includes both an historical analysis of the construction and transformation of ideas about education at the global level and a statistical assessment of the implementation of conflicting approaches to state education funding within countries. In the historical analysis, we show how the idea of free education, although institutionalized in international law, was subject to powerful challenges from international financial institutions, which advocated user fees for public services, including education. Ultimately, the principle of free education prevailed despite the financial clout behind the opposing view. Using data from poor- and middle-income countries from 1983 to 2004, we also show that the presence of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) advocating child rights was linked to an increase in the levels of state funding for education. This suggests that embeddedness in global discourses, as evidenced by country-specific linkages to INGOs, is critical in making governments more accountable for supporting institutionalized ideas concerning education.