American Political Science Review

Research Article

The Political Origins of Primary Education Systems: Ideology, Institutions, and Interdenominational Conflict in an Era of Nation-Building


a1 University of Oxford

a2 Lund University


This paper is concerned with the development of national primary education regimes in Europe, North America, Latin America, Oceania, and Japan between 1870 and 1939. We examine why school systems varied between countries and over time, concentrating on three institutional dimensions: centralization, secularization, and subsidization. There were two paths to centralization: through liberal and social democratic governments in democracies, or through fascist and conservative parties in autocracies. We find that the secularization of public school systems can be explained by path-dependent state-church relationships (countries with established national churches were less likely to have secularized education systems) but also by partisan politics. Finally, we find that the provision of public funding to private providers of education, especially to private religious schools, can be seen as a solution to religious conflict, since such institutions were most common in countries where Catholicism was a significant but not entirely dominant religion.


c1 Ben Ansell is Professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 1NF, United Kingdom (

c2 Johannes Lindvall is Associate Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, Lund University, Box 52, 22100, Lund, Sweden (


  We would like to thank Pablo Beramendi, Rikhil Bhavnani, Marius Busemeyer, Holger Döring, Sabine Engel, Jane Gingrich, Martin Hall, Silja Häusermann, Danny Loss, Philip Manow, Moira Nelson, Nathaniel Olin, Rita Nikolai, Kees van Keesbergen, and Hillel Soifer for helpful comments and advice. We would also like to thank seminar participants in Copenhagen (Economics), Lund (Political Science), Stockholm (SOFI), and Wisconsin (Political Science), and workshop participants in Bremen and Konstanz. Our special thanks go to the participants in the 2012 Trans-Atlantic Summer Institute at the Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota and to the research assistants who helped us to compile the data: Anders Djurfeldt, Alvina Erman, Carl Gahnberg, Annika Stjernquist, and Henry Thomson. Ben Ansell would like to thank the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota for financial and scholarly support. Johannes Lindvall received generous financial support from the Crafoord Foundation and from the European Research Council (Starting Grant No. 284313).