The pair of education advocates had a big idea, a new approach to transform every public-school classroom in America. By early 2008, many of the nation’s top politicians and education leaders had lined up in support.

But that wasn’t enough. The duo needed money – tens of millions of dollars, at least – and they needed a champion who could overcome the politics that had thwarted every previous attempt to institute national standards.

So they turned to the richest man in the world.

On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates’ headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife, Melinda, to turn their idea into reality.

Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning and that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed remedial classes.

The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products. That seemed to resonate with the man who led the creation of the world’s dominant computer operating system.

“Can you do this?” Wilhoit recalled being asked. “Is there any proof that states are serious about this, because they haven’t been in the past?”

Wilhoit responded that he and Coleman could make no guarantees but that “we were going to give it the best shot we could.”

After the meeting, weeks passed with no word. Then Wilhoit got a call: Gates was in.

What followed was one of the most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.

MONEY FLOWS TO POLICY GROUPS

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards. With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes.

Bill Gates was de facto organizer, providing the money and structure for states to work together on common standards in a way that avoided the usual collision between states’ rights and national interests that had undercut every previous effort, dating from the Eisenhower administration.

The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.

Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on Common Core.

One 2009 study, conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute with a $959,116 Gates grant, described the proposed standards as being “very, very strong” and “clearly superior” to many existing state standards.

Gates money went to state and local groups, as well, to help influence policymakers and civic leaders. And the idea found a major booster in President Obama, whose new administration was populated by former Gates Foundation staffers and associates. The administration designed a special contest using economic stimulus funds to reward states that accepted the standards.

NO VOTES NEEDED

The result was astounding: Within just two years of the 2008 Seattle meeting, 45 states and the District of Columbia had fully adopted the Common Core State Standards.

The math standards require students to learn multiple ways to solve problems and explain how they got their answers, while the English standards emphasize non-fiction and expect students to use evidence to back up oral and written arguments. The standards are not a curriculum but skills that students should acquire at each grade. How they are taught and materials used are decisions left to states and school districts.

The standards have become so pervasive that they also quickly spread through private Catholic schools. About 100 of 176 Catholic dioceses have adopted the standards because it is increasingly difficult to buy classroom materials and send teachers to professional development programs that are not influenced by Common Core, Catholic educators said.

And yet, because of the way education policy is generally decided, Common Core was instituted in many states without a single vote taken by an elected lawmaker. Kentucky even adopted the standards before the final draft had been made public.

States were responding to a “common belief system supported by widespread investments,” according to one former Gates employee who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the foundation.

The movement grew so quickly and with so little public notice that opposition was initially almost nonexistent. That started to change last summer, when local tea party groups began protesting what they viewed as the latest intrusion by an overreaching federal government – even though the impetus had come from the states. In some circles, Common Core became known derisively as “Obamacore.”

Since then, anti-Common Core sentiment has intensified, to the extent that it has become a litmus test in the Republican Party ahead of its 2016 presidential nomination process. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose nonprofit Foundation for Excellence in Education has received about $5.2 million from the Gates Foundation since 2010, is one of Common Core’s most vocal supporters. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who, like Bush, is a potential Republican presidential candidate, led a repeal of the standards in his state.

In the past week, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican and former advocate of the standards, signed a law pulling her state out, days after South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, did the same.

TEACHERS PLAN PROTEST

Some liberals are angry, too, with a few teacher groups questioning Gates’ influence and motives. Critics say Microsoft stands to benefit from the Common Core’s embrace of technology and data – a charge Gates vehemently rejects.

A group calling itself the “Badass Teachers Association,” citing opposition to what it considers market-based education reform, plans a June 26 protest outside the Gates Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle.

In an interview, Gates said his role is to fund the research and development of new tools, such as Common Core, and offer them to decision-makers who are trying to improve education for millions of Americans. It’s up to the government to decide which tools to use, but someone has to invest in their creation, he said.

“The country as a whole has a huge problem that low-income kids get less good education than suburban kids get,” Gates said. “And that is a huge challenge.… Education can get better. Some people may not believe that. Education can change. We can do better.”

Whether Common Core will deliver on its promise is an open question.

Tom Loveless, a former Harvard University professor who is an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said Common Core was “built on a shaky theory.” He said he has found no correlation between quality standards and higher student achievement.

“Everyone who developed standards in the past has had a theory that standards will raise achievement, and that’s not happened,” Loveless said.