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.