In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Bill Gates insisted that his support for the Common Core education standards was purely philosophical—he was offended by the notion that anyone would suspect him of pushing a policy that helps his own bottom line. He has no reason to peddle Common Core, he said, except that he cares deeply about the state of education in the U.S. and sincerely thinks expensive new curriculum standards and rigorous standardized testing will improve U.S. schools:
"I hope I can make this clear, I believe in the Common Core because of its substance and what it will do to improve education, and that's the only reason I believe in the Common Core. And I have no, you know, this is giving money away. This is philanthropy. This is trying to make sure students have the kind of opportunity I had. You, you've, there is nothing, uh, it's so, almost… outrageous to say otherwise in my view."
To that end, the billionaire philanthropist has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting Common Core through the advocacy efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But wait a minute—doesn't Gates work for a pretty big computer company, or something? Oh, and doesn't the testing component of Common Core require schools to upgrade their computer software? Who wants to bet that Core-aligned standardized testing requires Windows 8?
It does! As The Post's Valerie Strauss points out, a Windows web page actually recommends that schools hurry up and buy the latest Windows software in order to enjoy a smoother transition to tech-heavy standardized testing required by Common Core:
This is not to say that that is what sparked or drove Gates' personal interest in the initiative; he has said he supports the standards because he thinks they will improve public education, and it seems fair to believe him when he says that is his motivation (whether or not the premise is actually true).
Still the fact remains that Microsoft is hoping to make some money from the implementation of the Core in classrooms.
As Strauss writes, this fact does not make Gates a liar. It seems likely he does indeed think that imposing a set of uniform standards on the states will improve students' educational outcomes. But it should underscore that massive, expensive public policy changes—even well-intentioned ones—carry ramifications for rent-seekers. (Indeed, many states only agreed to the standards because the Obama administration promised them federal grant money in exchange.)
I have already noted that Common Core looks like corporate welfare for textbook giants, since Pearson—the largest textbook company in the world—won a non-competitive government contract to design tests for half the states. It may also be crony capitalism for computer companies.
Whether or not Common Core helps Microsoft's bottom line is ultimately irrelevant to whether the policy is sound, of course. But when both Tea Party conservatives and teachers unions—as well as students, teachers, parents, and Louis CK—are complaining that the school years is being filled up with wonky high-stakes tests that are expensive to implement and impossible to prepare for, it's worth asking who proposed this bright idea. And why.
Read more Reason coverage of Common Core here.