In 2011, historian Charles Glenn published his masterful Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control, the story of four nations (Austria, Prussia, the Netherlands, Belgium - with very different histories of education. The two former states developed very centralized and government-heavy models of education, largely for the purpose of fostering national unity among their people; the latter two went the opposite direction, allowing for a very decentralized and locally (if not parentally) controlled "system" of education.
This book is something of a sequel, reviewing the history of the United States' model(s) of education policy - what Glenn calls "the third way" between centralization and localization, between standardization and differentiation. Really, this book is the history of how a very decentralized system, varying from locality to locality, often with competing church-run, private, and "public" schools, into a system of centralized and government-administered schools. We go from the history of the American colonies' schools - from the Northeast's laws mandating that towns of a certain size had to have a primary school, to the South's relative lack of such measures - to the "common school" era of Horace Mann and Henry Barnard to the early 20th century, where educators found their "savior" in John Dewey.
While my review here will certainly not to justice to Glenn's wide-ranging book (I have written a professional review at Education Review online journal for those interested), the moral of Glenn's story is largely that the more centralized schooling became, the more religious and cultural diversity began to become a real problem for schools. When schools were decentralized and local affairs - often allowing parents to go to private schools with government subsidy when necessary - localities if not families could choose whether they wanted schools with religious instruction (the answer was almost always "yes!"), what religion would be taught, and how. Once you centralize and increase the number of folks who have to receive instruction one way (the state-desired way), you run into problems like that of 1850's New York City, where Catholics unsuccessfully waged a battle to get state funding for Catholic (rather than blatantly Protestant) schools... or 1920's Oregon, where the anti-Catholic majority passed a bill outlawing private schooling completely.
Another mooral of Glenn's book is that the trend of centralization of educational decisions was more or less accompanied by a belief among educators (and educationists) that decisions should be made by experts rather than parents and community members. When Horace Mann and others created state-run "normal schools" (teacher training institutes), they created institutions who, over decades, turned out teachers whose views on what schools should do became increasingly at odds with the views of parents and local community members. the penultimate chapter - an analysis of the work of John Dewey and his effect on the world of education - shows that while Dewey frequently talked of the importance of democracy, he really never meant democracy-as-a-system-of-political-decision-making, but democracy-as-a-set-of-Deweyan-ideals (which often clashed markedly with what parents wanted to see from schools).
While Glenn's conclusion is that schools should be "disestablished" and we should return to a decentralized system of schooling, preferably one allowing for parental choice, Glenn is not an ideologue, and there is no 'conspiracy theory' tone to this book (as with many other "critical histories" of education). There is no sense that his story is dictated by his conclusion (rather than vice versa). He certainly appreciates that there are downsides to localized education systems (particularly the wide variance in quality between localities, even though that remains a problem even with centralization).
This is easily one of the best histories of the American education system I've read. It is a bit technical and dry - an academic book more than a "popular history" - but for those of us concerned with history of education and education policy, it will be a thrilling read!