“No Child Left Behind [NCLB] and the Race to the Top [RTTT] grants are likely to be the high water mark of federal involvement in schools,” says Jay Mathews in a Washington Post editorial this week on why the Obama Administration’s further overreach into national standards will fail. His argument? Washington simply can’t afford to get any more deeply involved in local schools.

On that point, Mathews is absolutely right. We also hope he’s right about the collapse of the national standards project, but it will take some effort to prove him so.

Embedded in debates about the future of NCLB, and already entangled with RTTT, is the Obama Administration’s push for national standards and tests—an unprecedented federal overreach. Among their many flaws (standardization of mediocrity, entanglement with federal funds, a disregard for state educational sovereignty) is the tremendous price tag associated with the push. Matthews cites the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene:

To make standards meaningful they have to be integrated with changes in curriculum, assessment and pedagogy,” [Greene] says. “Changing all of that will take a ton of money.” The states don’t have it. The federal government can’t supply it at a time of budget-cutting. Even the Gates Foundation, Greene says, can’t foot such a large bill.

Indeed, the bill could be quite large. Eleven states and the District of Columbia won a total of $4.35 billion through the RTTT grant program, with awards ranging from $75 million for Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., to $700 million for Florida and New York. But that funding will fall short of the dollars needed for states to nationalize their standards. As we wrote earlier this year:

Although RTTT funding created enough of an incentive during a time of state budget shortfalls for a majority of states to sign on to national standards and tests, the funding will likely fall far short of the investments that taxpayers have already made in state accountability systems.… [Funding] is unlikely to cover the entire cost associated with the overhaul of state accountability systems—including implementation of standards and testing and the professional development and curriculum restructuring to go along with them.

These costs have not been adequately discussed. Instead, the seed funding could create yet another strain on state budgets—or yet more clamoring for federal money to finish the job of conforming to the national standards and assessments.

Over the past 10 years, taxpayers have invested significant amounts of money in their states’ accountability systems. It could cost California taxpayers $1.6 billion to overhaul their existing high quality standards and tests for unproven national standards; in Texas, leaders estimate it would take $3 billion.

Matthews concludes:

We already have all the national standards we need from decades of states borrowing one another’s ideas. The colleges generally agree how much math, English, history and science our students need. Employers are pushing for special requirements for students who want to work after high school. Those local business executives will know better than any national panel what the students in their communities need to learn in the way of teamwork, critical thinking, presentation skills and time management.

The states, the districts and particularly the schools are full of creative educators who can show us, in a local way, what might work best for American students.

There are many constitutional and pragmatic concerns with national standards and tests. But the expense to taxpayers should be near the top of the list.