By Noel K. Gallagher
AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage signed an executive order Wednesday making clear that the state has always set its own education policy and does not -- and will not -- share any data with the federal government that would jeopardize student privacy.
Privacy concerns have been raised by critics of new educational benchmarks, called the Common Core State Standards, even though states are not required to provide the federal government with student data. Maine and 44 other states have adopted the standards.
"There is a lot of misinformation floating around right now," said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. The executive order is meant to "reassure all Mainers that we're doing a number of things to improve education, but we are not being mandated to do so by the federal government."
LePage and state education officials support the standards, which Maine adopted in 2011. They are the latest update to the Maine Learning Standards, which lay out standards in eight subject areas. The state standards were implemented in 1997 and are periodically updated. So far, only math and English Common Core standards have been developed; standards in science and other areas are still being developed.
The Common Core standards set grade-by-grade educational expectations for such skills as learning fractions or taking geometry. (Year-by-year standards are available online at www.corestandards.org.)
The idea behind Common Core is to adopt tougher standards that better prepare students for college and careers and allow them to be compared with students in other states. Local schools select the texts, lesson plans and curriculum to meet the standards.
But opponents say Common Core strips control from local school boards and will lead to a federal takeover of public schools. In Maine, anti-Common Core activists are trying to get an initiative on the ballot next year to overturn the state's decision.
Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to replace educational goals that varied from state to state. Although the federal government did not create the standards, it heavily promoted them and encouraged adoption by tying them to some funding.
Several Republican governors, all of whom support the standards, have issued executive orders similar to LePage's. Bennett said the governor's office has heard from some residents and educators concerned about the standards.
"There's been a national dustup that has caused some local activism," she said.
LePage said in a statement that the federal government plays no role in setting state education standards.
"With my executive order, Maine is making clear that we set the standards for our state, that implementation of those standards is locally controlled, and that students and families have an unalienable right to their privacy that will never be infringed on so long as I am Governor," he said.
The Common Core website spells out that the states are not required to provide any student data.
"There are no data collection requirements of states adopting the Common Core State Standards," the site reads. "Standards define expectations for what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade. Implementing the CCSS does not require data collection. The means of assessing students and the data that results from those assessments are up to the discretion of each state and are separate and unique from the (Common Core State Standards)."
Last week, state Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen sent a letter to the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce spelling out that the state wouldn't share personally identifiable student data, or link the state data system with any other state or federal database.
Specifically, Maine does not even collect personally identifiable student data at the state level. Only local districts have a student's name and Social Security number, and if that number is somehow passed on to the state Department of Education office, it is removed, said department spokeswoman Samantha Warren. Instead, all Maine students are assigned a unique number that is used to track their progress anonymously throughout their educational career.
"For the most part, there is no data we provide to the federal government that any Maine parent can't see for themselves in the Data Warehouse," said Warren, referring to statistical information available on the department's website.
Maine regularly provides aggregate student data to the U.S. Department of Education for a variety of reasons, from seeking grant money to mandatory test score results. But the data does not provide any identifiable information.
The Maine Equal Rights Center is collecting signatures for the ballot proposal. They will have to collect more than 57,000 by February to get on the November 2014 ballot.
Organizers said the ballot effort would continue, despite the governor's executive order.
"Politically it's a great gesture, but it doesn't change anything," said Erick Bennett, founder of the Maine Equal Rights Center.
He said the governor and state legislators "didn't understand" Common Core and the information from state officials wasn't true.
"The unfortunate thing about politics is that people lie. It's unfortunate but true," said Erick Bennett, adding that the main issue is that national education standards violates state's rights. Anti-Common Core legislation, backed primarily by conservatives, has been introduced in several states, including Alabama and Missouri. In Michigan, Republicans recently blocked state funding for implementation while they evaluate cost and other implications.
Small-government advocates and tea party groups say the standards are an example of federal overreach. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution opposing the standards and conservative radio host Glenn Beck has spoken against them on his show. This spring, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and eight other Republican senators signed a letter seeking to defund all Common Core-related initiatives at the Department of Education.
But education reformers such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, and Students First leader Michelle Rhee, a Democrat, both strongly support the changes. The more liberal American Federation of Teachers supports the standards, but opposes "high-stakes" testing that ties students' test results to teacher evaluations or school sanctions.
Noel Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:
Correction: This story was updated at 9:15 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 5 to clarify that No Common Core Maine is not part of the referendum drive.Tweet