AUGUSTA — Democratic gubernatorial nominee Libby Mitchell said recently that she opposes having the Maine Department of Education collect students’ Social Security numbers for data tracking purposes, but she was a co-sponsor of the legislation that allowed it.

The campaign for Republican nominee Paul LePage criticized her stance Monday.

Sponsored by Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, the bipartisan legislation was endorsed unanimously by the Education Committee in 2009. It passed without opposition in the House and the Senate, where no roll call votes were requested.

The law is intended to allow school officials to keep better track of students’ performance and their success after graduation, as a way of evaluating academic programs’ effectiveness.

Its supporters said that, by using Social Security numbers to track students, the state can follow them through college and employment by coordinating with the Maine Department of Labor. Parents who don’t want to share their children’s Social Security numbers with the state’s longitudinal data system may opt out.

A recent data breach in the Department of Education led Mitchell to re-examine her position on the issue, a campaign spokesman said.

“Sen. Mitchell, after seeing the data breach that happened to the Department of Education earlier this fall, became very concerned about the (department’s) ability for the information to be stored in a safe manner and therefore doesn’t support the further collection of that data,” said Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for Mitchell.

The data breach, which didn’t include students’ Social Security numbers, occurred in late September, according to a news release from the Department of Education. In response, the department delayed further collection of Social Security numbers and said it planned to hire a consultant to evaluate the security of its electronic databases.

The LePage campaign said Mitchell’s reversal on the policy is politically motivated.

“Now that parents and school boards are expressing privacy concerns, she has come out against a bill she co-sponsored just one year ago,” LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said. “The Department of Education has failed to protect private information, parents are outraged, and Libby Mitchell is running for political cover.”

LePage has said that he opposes the collection of Social Security numbers, and that the state should respect children’s privacy.

Connolly said Mitchell still supports the intent of the law.

“The policy goal of collecting student data as it relates to employment opportunities and/or trends is an important goal,” he said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: rmetzler@mainetoday.com