The Common Core standards in reading and math in Kansas do not require states to collect massive amounts of personal data on every student. Nor is the Kansas State Department of Education taking part in any new national or international data mining system.
At least that's the assurance from Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker, who says she is puzzled about where those reports are coming from.
"There is no further data gathering because of Common Core," DeBacker said during a break in Tuesday's State Board of Education meeting, when scores of people lined up to advocate for and against approval of the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.
That's not to say Kansas doesn't collect data on students. It does and it's been doing so for many years, largely at the insistence of state and federal lawmakers who want the data to hold schools accountable for improving student performance and closing achievement gaps.
"We gather about 86 data points that any parent would expect if their student is enrolled in public school," DeBacker said, "from their name, their ethnicity, their race, their grade level and then, of course, their achievement as they move through our system."
And the only financial information the state gathers is whether the student receives free or reduced-price meals, DeBacker said, because that's the only indicator they have about a student's socio-economic status.
"That's the only time when income is asked because they have to qualify for that," she said.
But that's a hard message to sell to those who've been showing up at state board meetings the last two months, criticizing Common Core as a giant federal intrusion, not only into state education policy, but also into the private lives of every American.
The extent of their fear was evident in the comments of Barbara Penn of Lenexa, who identified herself as "a public school educator for about 24 years" in Kansas.
"I don't need to know (my students') political affiliation," she said. "I don't need to know their religious affiliation. I don't need to know their blood type. These things don't help me be a better educator."
"I'm concerned with the data mining that's going on," she continued. "I'm concerned about privacy. I never thought that growing up in this country that the issues we're having with the IRS now would come about. They have information. OK, what's happening to the information being collected on our children, our grandchildren, our nieces, our nephews? Why does this need to follow them?"
Penn wasn't the only one to conflate the alleged data-gathering under Common Core, which isn't actually happening, with other recent controversies involving federal agencies.
The original J-W story about the state board meeting, quoted freshman Republican Rep. Allan Rothlisberg of Geary County as saying, "We've seen in the news lately, obviously with the IRS, spying on us. Why on earth would we expect the Department of Education — which is not constitutionally authorized, as previously said — to look out for our children?"
Theories about a data-mining operation being a requirement under Common Core are rampant in the blogosphere. A simple Google search using the terms "Common Core" and "data collection" pulls up a treasure trove of such sites.
One website dedicated specifically to opposing Common Core has multiple articles linking the data collection system to the IRS and NSA scandals.
Another called the Daily Herald website contains an essay by one Oak Norton who traces the data-mining conspiracy back to a 2004 agreement between Bill Gates and the United Nations.
"Bill Gates knew that education was a huge multibillion dollar industry and if he could be at the crest of that wave, he would make billions,"Norton writes, evidently missing the fact that, at the time, Gates was already the wealthiest man on the planet Earth.
Like many exaggerated theories, though, there is a kernel of truth behind this one.
What is happening, according to education experts, is a project by a non-profit corporation called inBloom, Inc., backed by a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to build a database which, theoretically at least, would be more accessible and user friendly than current state-based or school-based systems, allowing teachers greater access to information so they can better tailor instruction to the individual needs of each student.
That project has indeed raised privacy concerns among education professionals, notably the American Federation of Teachers. That's probably why hardly any states or individual districts so far have signed up to take part in it.
For an interesting discussion of those issues, check out this recent blog post from Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.
But Kansas is not taking part in that project, DeBacker said.
The Kansas House on Saturday narrowly defeated a bill that almost certainly would have resulted in a costly – and potentially embarrassing, for the Legislature – lawsuit over who controls the content and standards for public education.
House Bill 2391 was forced onto the House and Senate floors in the final days of the session. Its purpose was to put the brakes on public schools implementing the Common Core standards in reading and math, and to completely block the State Board of Education from adopting the proposed Next Generation Science Standards.
It also would have set up a legislative oversight committee to review those standards and make recommendations to next year's legislature about whether any of those standards should be allowed to continue.
In some people's eyes, that would have created a broad and sweeping new power of the legislature to block or usurp the constitutional authority of other branches of government – in this case, the elected Kansas Sate Board of Education.
In the gallery above the Senate chamber, where the bill passed, 24-12, and in the hallways outside, three State Board of Education members told me they had already begun talking among themselves about challenging the bill in court if it became law. The exact nature of such a legal challenge was yet to be determined, but board member Janet Waugh, a Kansas City Democrat, said: “Our next meeting (June 11) should be interesting.”
And in the gallery above the House chamber, where the bill narrowly failed, 55-58, Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker acknowledged some sort of legal action would be necessary.
It takes 63 “yes” votes to pass a bill in the House. Twelve members were absent, but had they been present it's entirely possible the bill would have been approved. When asked about the bill, in between the Senate and House votes, Gov. Sam Brownback would not indicate whether he would sign it, saying only, “Let's wait and see what happens in the House.”
DeBacker said she believed the real issue behind the bill was not Common Core, but rather the new science standards, which the State Board is expected to vote on June 11. She also wondered aloud whether the board shouldn't ignore the law, if it passed, and adopt the science standards anyway, in effect daring the legislature to try to stop them.
Had the law passed, and had the state board stood up to the challenge, it would have set up a dramatic face-off between the legislature and state board over who has constitutional authority to set educational standards. But it's a contest that has already been litigated in Kansas – several times, in fact – and most legal authorities agree it is virtually certain which side would have won.
Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution gives the legislature authority of “establishing and maintaining public schools,” but it gives the state board authority to supervise how they are operated.
Article 2 gives the legislature what is commonly called “the power of the purse” - the authority to appropriate money. But it does not give the legislature authority to use that power for unconstitutional purposes, such as de-funding another branch of government or blocking that branch from exercising its own constitutional duties.
That issue was litigated in 1973 when the Kansas Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision interpreting Article 6 of the Constitution. The case, State ex rel. vs. Board of Education, commonly known as the Peabody, established that the Constitution gives the state board “self-executing” powers, meaning the board doesn't need any further legislative authority to exercise the power granted to it by the Constitution:
"The state board of education authority to exercise general supervision of the public schools, educational institutions and educational interests of the state . . . is self-executing in effect," the Court ruled. "Where a constitutional provision is self-executing the legislature may enact legislation to facilitate or assist in its operation, but whatever legislation is adopted must be in harmony with and not in derogation of the provisions of the constitution."
The opinion itself does not seem to have been published on the internet, but it is explained in a 1983 attorney general's opinion. It also is referenced in other Supreme Court cases, including USD 443 vs. State Board of Education (1998). And it's discussed in the 2001 "History of Kansas Education," by Sherrill Martinez and Lue Ann Snider of the Kansas State Department of Education