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What's the Deal with Privacy, Common Core, and the Feds in Georgia?

What does it mean when a governor signs an executive order that doesn't change anything anybody is actually doing, or will do?

The question has come up in Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, issued an order on May 15 "re-affirming state sovereignty in regards to education." The order begins by asserting that the federal government has "no constitutional right to determine how children in the State of Georgia will be educated," and goes on to say that education standards can't be imposed on the state by the federal government, and that all decisions about curriculum and instruction will be made at the local level.

The executive order ends with this statement: "That no personally identifiable data on students and/or their families' religion, political party affiliation, biometric information, psychometric data, and/or voting history shall be collected, tracked, housed, reported, or shared with the federal government."

This language is very clear. But it changes nothing about the way Georgia interacts with the federal government in terms of providing data, according to the state education department. It also changes nothing about the way the Peach State will deal with student data and Uncle Sam as far as the Common Core State Standards is concerned. (Common-core observers may be familiar that concerns about student privacy rights under the common core were among many reasons the Republican National Committee stated it was opposed to the new standards in a resolution it passed last month.)

When I rang up Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the Georgia department, she said, "The executive order that Gov. Deal signed does not change anything we do or not do currently at the department of education. It simply reiterates our long-standing practice of protecting data, student-level data. We only send aggregate data files to the federal government, and any student data that we do track within the state is tracked by anonymous numbers."

So what is Deal, who one would assume has been told all of this, really doing here? In the words of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Deal is effectively trying to stop a "mutiny" against the common core in his home state. Georgia state Sen. William Ligon, a Republican who introduced a bill this year requiring the state to drop the common core but saw it get squashed, was in attendance when Deal when he signed the executive order, and Ligon subsequently called it a "good first step."

But Deal, a common core supporter, doesn't want to take the next step Ligon wants from the state, which is to pull out of the common core entirely. That means the anti-common-core pot will likely continue to fizz and bubble in the state, especially since tea party groups have picked up the issue and are opposing the common core.

By the way, the state GOP convention in Georgia is taking place this weekend, which may help to explain the timing of Deal's executive order. And Deal is up for re-election next year, so in appealing to his party's base in the state, he'll have to display a deft but forceful political touch if he wants to keep the common core around.

"I think the governor was correct in pointing out there is a difference between standards and curriculum. I don't think a lot of people understand that. There's also a difference between curriculum and resources. The standards are ... very broad, overarching things that we think students should know and be able to do," the state superintendent, John Barge, a Republican, said at a press conference May 15 in reaction to Deal's executive order.

Barge is also up for re-election in 2014, and he's dealing with political pressure over student privacy, too. The state is a "Phase 2" partner with inBloom, a nonprofit group that says it uses student data to help teachers deliver personalized learning to students using up-to-date classroom technology. "Phase 2" means that the state shares digital resources with inBloom, but not any student data ("Phase 1" states and districts share student data with the group). But the group has come under fire in Louisiana and elsewhere over concerns that it could potentially share student data inappropriately with private education-technology vendors, something the group says it will not do.

On this point, Deal's executive order also reads: "That no student data shall be collected for the purpose of the development of commercial products or services."

Barge has recently clarified the state's refusal to share student data with inBloom, although he also said he's heard that individual districts in Georgia have been asked to share that data by inBloom.

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