Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday issued an executive order “regarding protection of local education control and student privacy rights.”
The order amounts to a transparent attempt by LePage to shore up support among members of his conservative base who are wary of any federal government intervention into education. At the same time, the order is written so as to have virtually no effect on the state’s education policy and programs.
In a rhetorical affirmation of states’ rights, the order bars Maine’s Department of Education from adopting any set of academic standards, established curriculum or instructional methods required by the federal government.
It also keeps the Department of Education from applying for any federal grant that would require the state, as a condition of applying, to adopt standards developed by the federal government.
The document pledges to prevent students’ personally identifiable information — including “their families’ religion, political party affiliation, psychometric data, biometric information, and/or voting history” — from being collected and reported to the federal government.
And in a nod to local control over education, the order prohibits the Education Department from requiring “the adoption of specific curricula or instructional approaches.”
The executive order from LePage comes as consternation grows among conservatives across the country concerning the adoption of the Common Core State Standards for math and English in 45 states and Washington, D.C.
The Republican National Committee in April adopted an anti-Common Core resolution that called the standards “an inappropriate overreach.” The plan to implement them, the resolution read, “creates and fits the country with a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.”
And in Maine, a petition drive kicked off last month in an effort to force a November 2014 ballot question on whether the state should drop Common Core.
Maine adopted the common standards in 2010 with overwhelming support from the Legislature. The Republican-led Legislature in 2011 unanimously passed the legislation needed to implement them, and LePage signed the bill into law.
The Common Core standards — which lay out what students are expected to know and be able to do at each grade level without designating how teachers are to teach the skills — are clearer and more specific than Maine’s former standards for math and English. They’re a promising reform for Maine’s public schools and schools in most other states.
And the federal government had no role in developing them; the standards were the initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The Obama administration did dangle a sizable incentive to encourage states to adopt the new standards in 2009 as part of its $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition. States that didn’t adopt the common standards were at a disadvantage in competing for the money, which was meant to promote a whole range of education reforms, one of them being more rigorous academic standards.
LePage’s executive order plays to the concerns conservatives have raised about Common Core — from the allegations of a massive federal overreach into local education to talk show host Glenn Beck’s conspiracy theory that the standards are part of a massive, government data-mining operation.
At the same time, the order strikes a balance that reaffirms the education policy changes Maine has made in recent years and allows the state to make similar changes in the future.
Maine is among a number of states that have been involved in developing a common set of standards for science, called the Next Generation Science Standards. Like the Common Core, the science standards have been the result of a state-driven effort with no federal involvement.
The federal government isn’t requiring the new standards and it’s unlikely it ever will, so Maine is free to adopt them per LePage’s order. If the federal government offers states incentives to adopt the standards through a competitive grant program, Maine would be able to take the feds up on their offer. The science standards, after all, are not “federally developed.”
LePage’s executive order, in practical terms, is meaningless. But it could have an unintended consequence: Making the governor’s conservative supporters incrementally more comfortable with Maine’s embrace of rigorous educational standards.
That would be a welcome development.