SALT LAKE CITY — Frustrated by a yearslong fight with education officials and policymakers, opponents of the Common Core State Standards are turning to a higher power to stop Utah's implementation of national education benchmarks.
In a post written Wednesday on the What Is Common Core blog, anti-Core advocate and organizer Christel Swasey describes the ongoing debate as a type of David and Goliath struggle between concerned people of faith and well-funded lobbying organizations.
After listing biblical accounts when God intervened on behalf of a group of petitioning believers — including the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of Jericho — Swasey encourages those who oppose the Common Core to pray for relief.
"Please, if you are a prayer, actually petition God," she wrote. "Pray that many, many more people will feel compelled to seek out and learn the whole truth about this initiative and its roots, which so affect children and the quality of our future society and its freedoms; pray that many people will rise and exercise their citizenship and use their voices, so that Common Core and its tangled web of unwanted controls will be defeated by the facts and by the truth, so that time-tested education and local control of it will be restored."
The Common Core State Standards are a series of educational benchmarks adopted by all but five states — implementation has been suspended in Indiana — that describe the minimum skills a student should master in each grade.
The standards have been championed by proponents as a way to improve college- and career-readiness while preserving curriculum control at the local level. Opponents, however, decry the standards as unconstitutional and an example of creeping federal control of schools, despite being developed by a coalition of states and voluntarily adopted.
A poll released last week by PDK/Gallup found that despite the wide adoption of the Common Core, 62 percent of Americans have never heard of the standards. Of those poll participants who were aware of the Common Core, many incorrectly believed the federal government was forcing states to adopt them and that the standards covered all academic subjects.
Locally, Common Core opponents held a rally at the state Capitol in July that drew hundreds of concerned parents, and more recently, a smaller group protested the August meeting of the State School Board.
Matthew Burbank, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said calls for prayer are not uncommon in politics and typically signal an attempt to rally like-minded individuals to a cause.
"Where we most commonly see that is candidates using the language of religion and prayer because they’re trying to communicate with a particular group of people," he said. "I think it’s a way of saying, ‘We’re speaking your language, we have the same values you do.’"
But he said with an appeal to religion, there's always a risk of failing to appeal, or even alienating, a broader segment of the community. He gave the example of the national Republican Party and its increasing use of evangelical language as a strategy that has become problematic in appealing to new voters.
"There’s often this implicit sense that if you’re on our side then God is with us and if not, then you must be on the devil’s side," he said. "Even if you never actually say the second part of that, it’s sort of implicit and that’s always a bit of a risk."
Swasey said it was not her intention to frame the issue as a debate between the religious and nonreligious. She said people are free to pray for what they will and acknowledged that many religious people support the Common Core.
"I think that nonreligious people respect other people’s right to pray," she said. "I know there’s plenty of religious people praying that Common Core will stay."
She said she was motivated to write the post out of a feeling of being completely outnumbered by the political power structure of the state and the national marketing power of Common Core supporters. The voices of concerned parents, she said, are being "drowned out" by policymakers and Core lobbyists.
"We’re just moms and dads, we don’t get a penny for fighting Common Core even through we’re doing it daily," she said. "We’re doing it because we feel that it is really wrong."
When asked about the PDK/Gallup poll, Swasey said the upside of people being unfamiliar with the Common Core is the potential of more parents becoming informed and joining the opposition.
"It is growing and growing and I predict that it’s going to get bigger and louder before it gets quiet," she said.
While a call for prayers can imply a last-ditch effort after other attempts at success have failed, Burbank said that in the case of Utah's Common Core, an appeal to religion shouldn't be seen as evidence that the conversation is over.
"Given the nature of the debate, I suspect that this is much more about rallying the troops to this particular view than it is saying, ‘We’re getting close to the end and don’t know what else to do,’" he said.