Educators, state officials debate impact of LePage’s executive order on student privacy

Posted Sept. 08, 2013, at 12:31 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 08, 2013, at 3 p.m.
Gov. Paul LePage
Gov. Paul LePage Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s pre-emptive strike on sharing data on Maine students with the federal government left his political opponents saying his executive order issued Sept. 4 amounts to nothing more than “words on paper” at best and at worst, could interfere with millions of dollars of federal funding that flows to Maine.

LePage and Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen insist that the order simply puts the federal government on notice that Maine will not share student-specific data for any reason, and that education decisions will continue to be made by school boards at the local level.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said her organization agrees that the most sensitive individual student data should be protected at all costs, but that LePage’s blanket order could have unintended consequences.

“We’re all unclear about what the exact ramifications of what’s going on could be,” Kilby-Chesley said Thursday. “If the state is restricted from applying for grant money under what the governor said in his executive order, we have to find out what that means for students. Does it mean we can’t take special education money or access other grant money? If so, that’s going to impact the schools pretty badly.”

Samantha Warren, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said LePage’s order was in response to concerns raised in recent weeks about student data privacy and school board-level control of local education decisions.

“There are no current funding streams that would be impacted,” said Warren. “The order says we won’t apply for funding that requires the adoption of federally mandated standards as a requirement.”

The order also bars the Department of Education from adopting any education standards mandated by the federal government and says the department “shall not apply for any federal grant that requires, as a condition of application, the adoption of any federally developed standards, curricula or instructional approaches.”

Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who regularly clashes with LePage on policy, said the executive order requires things that are already written into state and federal law and that “there is simply no effort afoot by the federal government to collect student data.”

“I’m not sure what the governor is reacting to,” said Mills. “An executive order does nothing to enhance or undermine state or federal laws. This is a piece of paper that essentially does nothing, in my view.”

The local control issue came to a head last month when a group of education activists announced at the State House that they are launching a petition drive against Maine’s involvement in “Common Core” education standards that are used in 45 states. Maine adopted the Common Core standards in English and math — which LePage signed into law in 2011 — and they are now part of Maine’s own standards, known as the Learning Results.

Those involved in the rally at the State House last month characterized Common Core as part of an attempt to nationalize public education and erode local control while demanding less-stringent standards than many states, including Maine, would otherwise demand. Proponents say Common Core establishes consistency between states and leads to a better overall education system.

Heidi Sampson, a member of the State Board of Education and the Maine Charter School Commission, is also the founder of a group called No Common Core Maine, which is one of the groups behind the petition drive which seeks to put a referendum question on the November 2014 statewide ballot. Sampson said she supports LePage’s action.

“It’s probably the governor’s step in the right direction of really standing solid for local control and student privacy,” said Sampson. “Those are vitally important issues and things that we as Mainers should hold in high regard. It sends a message that is important.”

Warren stressed that the Common Core State Standards were implemented voluntarily.

“There has increasingly been questions asked here in the state about Common Core, and this executive order answers them,” said Warren. “It really affirms our state’s commitment to high standards while making it clear the standards that are in place in Maine are our own.”

Warren said Maine collects very little individual student data and sends none of it to the federal government.

“There is an increased awareness about data, especially in the wake of the National Security Agency Leaks and other things,” she said. “We want to make sure that information is protected.”

LePage said in a written statement Wednesday that “higher standards play an important role … but the federal government does not.”

“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 schools and families have an unalienable right to their privacy that will never be infringed on so long as I am governor,” said LePage.

Bowen, who is resigning as education commissioner effective Sept. 12, made similar statements last week in a letter he sent to the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The letter discussed the state’s Longitudinal Data System, a K-12 data warehouse with reporting and analysis capabilities that was implemented with more than $10 million from the federal government.

“We are grateful for that generous support of this initiative from the U.S. Department of Education, but we would remind the committee that Maine is committed to keeping its [Statewide Longitudinal Data System] solely a state system, entirely independent from any other state’s system or federal database initiative,” wrote Bowen. “We believe this sovereignty is critical to the privacy of Maine students and their families, and to the autonomy of our state’s public education system, which is based on a fundamental right to exercise local control.”

According to Department of Education data, approximately 12 percent of K-12 education funding in Maine came from federal sources in 2010, the most recent year for which there was information. This year, the federal funding amounts to more than $137 million spread among 17 funding streams ranging from special education money to so-called Title 1 money, which flows to school districts whose students collectively fall below certain income guidelines.

Warren said the only funding that could be affected by LePage’s executive order is “Race to the Top” grants, which Maine has applied for but never received.

Kilby-Chesley said she sees LePage’s executive order as a political maneuver designed to appease his most conservative supporters.

“There are some states that are backpedaling on Common Core because of the ideology of their governors,” she said. “It’s becoming clear that maybe the political fringe is sort of directing some of this for sure.”

There is evidence that supports Kilby-Chesley’s assertion. At a summit hosted by the American for Prosperity Foundation last week in Florida, discussion around Common Core led to a heated debate, according to a conservative blog called Caffeinated Thoughts. Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida was heckled during the event for his support of Common Core and Republican Texas Gov. Ted Cruz was booed for even mentioning it. Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was openly praised for his opposition.

Michelle Malkin, a conservative syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor, warned Republican governors that they need to listen to the people on Common Core, according to the blog.

“Listen to the grassroots. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing voices of all of these entirely dissatisfied parents who are a heck of a lot more informed than you are and your staffs are about the Fed Ed corruption,” Malkin told the blog’s author. “I understand that a lot of these Republicans think they are doing what is in their self-interest, but they are so psychologically deluded. I think in part it may be as crass and craven as listening to donors. You have got all of these big businesses … that’s what’s driving this. So if they are listening to money, then the only way to combat that is with political force.”

Warren said LePage simply wanted to ease concerns about students’ privacy.

“People are rightly concerned about the protection of our personal data,” she said.

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