Due to rapidly decreasing birth rates and a declining number of primary-school-aged children, the People’s Republic of China has drastically reduced the number of primary schools across the country since the 1980s.
We analyze the effect of removing village-level primary schools and effectively merging these into larger township-level schools on educational attainment in rural areas of the People’s Republic of China. We employ individual- and village-level information from the China Household Ethnic Survey, which covers regions that are intensively affected by the removal campaign. We find a negative effect of school removals on primary school and junior high school completion rates. However, we also find positive effects on educational attainment beyond junior high school for those students who began their education in the new merged primary schools. This effect can be attributed to resource pooling and higher teacher quality in the new schools. The adverse effects are more severe for girls, especially if the new schools do not provide boarding and are located far away from student residences, and for children whose parents have low educational attainment, thus exacerbating gender inequality and the intergenerational transmission of education inequality. Our findings provide an important reference for other developing countries that will need to reallocate primary school investment in the future.