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Bailey courts ‘parental rights’ voters with activist group that called Pritzker a ‘groomer’

GOP gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey speaks to a small crowd of parent activists outside of the Capitol building in Springfield, blasting "critical race theory" and Illinois' new sex education standards.
Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
GOP gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey speaks to a small crowd of parent activists outside of the Capitol building in Springfield, blasting "critical race theory" and Illinois' new sex education standards.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey on Tuesday said he’d prioritize eliminating “critical race theory” and “egregious” sex education standards from Illinois schools if elected to replace Gov. JB Pritzker in November, courting a relatively new coalition of voters radicalized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bailey made those comments to a small rally outside the state Capitol building in Springfield organized by activist group Awake IL, which in recent weeks has come under fire for its social media posts, including a tweet in June that called Pritzker a “groomer” for signing new sex education standards into law.

Awake IL also took credit for “blast[ing]” a planned drag show targeted at families at a bakery in Chicago’s far north suburban Lake in the Hills in July, calling it “perverted,” and warning, “they’re coming for your kids, McHenry County.” But after UpRising Bakery was vandalized the night before the scheduled event — including broken windows and graffiti that said “f*gs rape kids” — the group distanced itself from Joseph Collins, the alleged perpetratorwith ties to the Proud Boys.

Awake IL founder Shannon Adcock on Tuesday reiterated to NPR Illinois that her group “had nothing to do” with the vandalism and doesn’t condone violence. The day before the scheduled show, Awake IL’s Twitter account praised the pressure campaign that forced UpRising to make ticket information harder to find.

Earlier this month, Chicago mayoral candidate and former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas condemned the group and said he wouldn’t have spoken on a panel organized by Awake IL “had I been aware of the hateful rhetoric espoused by a prominent member of the group.”

Bailey, however, leaned into the group’s messaging on Tuesday, telling a crowd of about 40 that Pritzker has “stripped away” decision-making powers from Illinois parents. Bailey referenced last fall’s repeal of Illinois’ Parental Notice of Abortion Act, but also alluded to state-mandated curriculum standards, which in recent years have grown to include the history and contributions of Asian Americans, LGBT individuals and an overhaul for sex education.

Read more: Dems march forward with repealing Ill.'s last abortion restriction, measure to curb lawsuits challenging vaccine mandates

“Children are our most valuable asset,” Bailey told the few dozen gathered for the lengthy program that began more than an hour late. “But our children and our rights as parents are being stripped from us.”

‘Parental rights’ movement

The two-term legislator from Xenia said he “look[s] forward to the days of getting CRT back out of our schools,” to muted applause. By its original definition, critical race theory is not something students would confront until at least college, but in recent years conservatives have used the term to encompass anything from teaching about Black history in the U.S. — including slavery, the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement — to diversity and inclusion training in workplaces.

Bailey also said he looked forward to repealing Illinois’ new sex education standards, which Pritzker signed into law last summer after the issue unexpectedly became a flashpoint late during the General Assembly’s spring legislative session in 2021.

“You've heard me say it many times that a day-one agenda will be firing the State Superintendent, Carmen Ayala,” Bailey said. “We must have change and it’s not going to stop there.”

Founded in May 2021, Awake IL was born out of a loose but growing movement of parents all over the U.S. who fought COVID restrictions like mandatory in-school mask-wearing and quarantining after exposure to the virus. Advocacy for a return to normal in-person schooling during the pandemic began to expand into other areas last summer, as school board meetings across the country suddenly became well-attended battlegrounds over issues like whether certain books should be included in classroom learning or even available in a school’s library.

Virginia’s 2021 governor’s race hinged on the burgeoning issue now branded as “parental rights,” with Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin successfully capitalizing on the wave of anger toward school boards, administrators, teachers unions and even individual teachers. In defeating his Democratic opponent, Youngkin inspired a rough strategy for courting this loose coalition of voters whose main concerns hinged not on their school-aged kids’ exposure to COVID, but to teachings they feared would harm their children, including CRT and ideas about different sexual and gender identities.

Youngkin’s administration is being sued over a “tip line” it set up that allows parents to report teachers who discuss “divisive” subjects in the classroom. It’s one of 16 states with official bans on CRT either in schools or in state agencies, via diversity training.

In Illinois’ Republican gubernatorial primary race, second-place finisher Jesse Sullivan attempted to distinguish himself in the six-way contest by emulating Youngkin’s courting of parental rights, even authoring a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” modeled after a similar effort by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But with Bailey at the top of the GOP ticket in November, Sullivan has passed that torch onto Bailey, endorsing him at Tuesday’s rally and vowing that conservatives like them will “bring God back to the center of our politics here in the state of Illinois,” which received cheers and the sounding of a ram’s horn.

“[The sex ed law] is an intentional design by the far left to say, ‘Hey, you know what? You guys cannot teach Christian values in our public schools,’” Sullivan said. “‘We get to teach our own version of our own leftist religion…and we can teach you that, ‘You know what? Any structure of family is just fine.’ No.”

New sex ed standards

Illinois is the first state to adopt a national model of new sex education standards created by the Future of Sex Education initiative in 2020. The law, passed by a majority of Democrats last year, will go into effect for the 2022 to 2023 school year. It allows parents to opt their children out of sex education or entire districts to opt out of adopting the standards. But if districts elect not to teach the new sex ed standards, they won’t be able to offer alternative sex ed curriculum.

Read more: Lawmakers Send Controversial Sex Education Standards Bill To Governor; GOP Lawmakers Say ‘National Sex Education Standards’ Are Too Explicit For Illinois Schools

Illinois doesn’t require schools teach sex ed, so a patchwork of different curricula had built up across the state in districts that do offer sex ed. Prior to the 2021 law, Illinois’ sex ed standards had been updated a few times in the last decade; legislation passed in 2018 required discussions of consent, sexual harassment and sexual assault in 2018, while a 2014 law de-emphasized abstinence-only sex education.

The new curriculum is referred to as “comprehensive” sexual health education, written with “social, racial, and reproductive justice and equity” in mind, per the Future of Sex Education Initiative’s 76-page document containing the standards. The curriculum includes broad themes like “consent and healthy relationships,” “interpersonal violence,” “anatomy and physiology,” plus separate categories for gender identity and sexual orientation.

By the end of second grade, for example, students should be able to define personal boundaries and consent, know the medically accurate names for genitalia and understand that all living things may have the capacity to reproduce. They should also be able to identify and understand why it’s important to respect different types of families outside of the nuclear family, in addition to gender and gender identity. The curriculum doesn’t provide any instruction on sexual orientation to kids in kindergarten through second grade.

By the end of fifth grade, children should understand the basics of human reproductive systems, sexual intercourse, how pregnancies occur (including in vitro fertilization and surrogacy) and a little about sexually transmitted diseases. Students in third through fifth grade will also learn about how puberty and personal hygiene, hormones and masturbation, as well as different gender identities and sexual orientations.

Before high school, sixth through eighth graders will learn more about how societal factors impact both self-esteem/body image and the dynamics of sexual relationships they may find themselves in — and how to escape abusive ones. They should also be able to explain in greater detail the different types of gender identities and sexual orientations. Junior high kids will also learn about different types of sex, contraception (including condoms and dental dams), how to recognize and prevent STDs, as well as discussions about pregnancy (including abortion and adoption).

Finally, high school students’ sex ed curriculum builds on prior learning, but with more emphasis on how to take action, whether advocating for a friend experiencing intimate violence or advocating for oneself in accessing things like contraception, treatment for STDs and support for issues ranging from toxic relationships to questioning gender identity and sexual orientation.

For the attendees of Tuesday’s event, that curriculum amounts to “radical sexual grooming,” as Awake IL’s Adcock put it in a brief interview with NPR Illinois after the rally.

Bailey ticket social media

Bailey declined to speak to reporters while departing from the rally, but his running mate, Stephanie Trussell, briefly answered questions while rushing to a campaign car to get to an event in Decatur.

During her remarks to the crowd, Trussell only briefly touched on Illinois’ new sex ed standards, quipping that if she were driving while her seven-year-old granddaughter tell her what she learned in school related to the new curriculum, she’d be so shocked she might just “have a car accident, just run right off the road.”

But she largely stayed away from any rhetoric espoused in social media posts highlighted in a WGN-TV report this week, including criticizing politicians who support the so-called “gay agenda,” and referring to Planned Parenthood as “Klanned Parenthood.”

Trussell stood by her nickname for the reproductive health giant, but demurred when it came to her views on the LGBT community.

“There’s no way I could possibly hate gay people if anybody knows my lifestyle and who I am and where I came from,” she told reporters. “There's no way. I love everybody. It's just that simple…I’m a Christian and I love everybody.”

Trussell’s social media is the latest exhibition in the last few weeks that include the unearthing of a 2017 Facebook Live video in which Bailey said the Holocaust didn’t “compare on a shadow of the life that has been lost with abortion since its legalization,” along with now-deleted homophobic and Islamophobic posts from his wife, Cindy.

In every case, Bailey’s campaign has contended the social media mining is a distraction tactic from Pritzker, though Bailey doubled down on his comparing the Holocaust to abortion last weekend.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.