Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently said that the idea that the Obama Administration is working to implement national standards and tests “is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy.” Duncan can deny that the federal government is on the verge of creating a national curriculum—an unprecedented federal overreach—but as George Will argued last Friday, the Obama Administration can’t ignore “those pesky things called laws.”

By the Pioneer Institute’s count, the Administration is running afoul of three federal laws in particular: the General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act (establishing the agency in 1979), and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA, the predecessor to No Child Left Behind). As Will points out—and the Pioneer report confirms—ESEA does not authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct, or control” the content taught in local schools. As for the other two laws, Will continues:

The General Education Provisions Act of 1970, which supposedly controls federal education programs, stipulates that “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize” any federal agency or official “to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction” or selection of “instructional materials” by “any educational institution or school system.”

The 1979 law establishing the Education Department forbids it from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” or “program of instruction” of any school or school system.

The current effort to impose national education standards and tests began in 2009, when the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released standards for math and English Language Arts with the idea that the standards would guide the content taught in every public school across the country. The Obama Administration quickly jumped on board, offering $4.35 billion in Race to the Top (RTT) grants to states that agreed to adopt common standards. Then and now, the Common Core standards were the only standards meeting the Administration’s requirement for uniformity.

The Administration’s incentives didn’t stop with RTT. The Department of Education is now offering No Child Left Behind waivers to states on the condition that they adopt common standards or standards authorized by the state’s higher education institutions. No state that has been awarded a waiver to date has opted for the latter.

The Obama Administration has circumvented Congress through the waiver process, allowing states to opt out of the burdensome No Child Left Behind if they agree to the Administration’s preferred education policies and agree to hand over control of their standards-setting authority to the Department of Education.

The federal government’s involvement with the Common Core national standards doesn’t end there. President Obama has also suggested that Title I funding—nearly $15 billion for low-income schools—could be tied to national standards adoption. And from the beginning, the Obama Administration directly funded national assessments that will be aligned with the standards, to the tune of $350 million.

Despite what Secretary Duncan might claim, it is clear that the federal government is inextricably linked with the Common Core standards effort. Will concludes:

Here again laws are cobwebs. As government becomes bigger, it becomes more lawless. As the regulatory state’s micromanagement of society metastasizes, inconvenient laws are construed—by those the laws are supposed to restrain—as porous and permissive, enabling the executive branch to render them nullities.

National standards and tests—which will undoubtedly lead to a national curriculum—will be costly in terms of liberty lost and, as the Pioneer Institute has also found, costly in terms of dollars. Pioneer estimates that states will be on the hook for nearly $16 billion in implementation costs, yet groups from across the ideological spectrum agree that national standards will fail to improve academic outcomes.

Washington’s experiment in micromanaging education has failed. Expanding the federal government’s role will produce more of the same: little improvement in academic achievement, stagnant graduation rates, and persistent achievement gaps. The push to nationalize curriculum is one of the greatest federal overreaches orchestrated by the Department of Education to date, and it will come at the expense of state and local educational control.

“Progressives,” Will states, “celebrate diversity in everything but thought.” State leaders have the opportunity to prevent this government-sponsored educational conformity from moving forward. Let’s hope they heed Will’s call.