The U.S. has probably the most decentralized system of public education in the advanced world. Some countries, like France, have an education ministry that is officially in charge of every neighborhood elementary school. Some, like Japan, have a centrally dictated curriculum. Some, like England, have national tests, administered by the government, that every student must pass in order to move on to the next level of the system. Only here is education substantially in the hands of almost 15,000 local school boards.

We've all been raised on inspiring stories of educational localism--of parents and teachers in modest, out-of-the-way places who somehow,...

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