Illinois Democrats spending big to combat ‘extremist conservatives’ in school board races

In an unprecedented move, the Illinois Democratic Party is investing about $300,000 in school and library board elections around the state to combat what it calls “extremist conservatives.”

Historically, voter turnout for school board elections are low, and don’t make headlines beyond the given community. But in recent years, school board meetings and elections across the country have become more contentious over topics like COVID-19 mitigation policies, book bans and diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum.

The Democratic Party of Illinois is “committed to supporting credible candidates who will oppose efforts to ban books, revise history, and limit reasonable sex education,” party chair and State Rep. Lisa Hernandez said in a statement. “We can’t afford to sit back while kids and families are at risk.”

Added Ben Hardin, executive director of the party: “It’s not Democrats versus Republicans. This is about our need to defend our values.”

Hardin said the party started hearing from various residents in November about conservative groups training candidates, and the party got involved at the beginning of this year. Election Day is April 4.

As previously reported by WBEZ, groups of conservative candidates are banding together in an attempt to get elected, sometimes with the support of outside organizations. For example, a group called Action PAC is funding candidates in Barrington Unit Community School District 220. They’re running on a platform to raise test scores, saying certain lessons, such as Illinois’ social-emotional learning and sex ed standards, are based on harmful ideologies and are distracting students from academics.

The party is recommending 84 candidates across 17 counties around the state. It’s also sending direct mail against 74 candidates whom it calls extremists. The party is spending about $300,000 on training for candidates, on paid communications and for mailers and digital ads. It also launched a website, DefendOurSchoolsIL, where residents can find recommended candidates. It’s also weighing in on local library board candidates.

“Our values are under attack, and these candidates stand in complete opposition to our values,” Hardin said.

Hardin says there are extremist groups and candidates that are anti-LGBTQ and anti- diversity, equity and inclusion.

“They’re coaching these candidates to couch their dangerous and regressive agendas in fuzzy language that on its surface seems harmless and maybe even pragmatic,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the real agendas are dangerous.”

The 1776 Project PAC is a national group making school board endorsements across the country. The group wants to prevent critical race theory from being taught in schools, saying it promotes a “version of cultural Marxism based on race rather than class.” It has endorsed several candidates in Illinois, including board candidates in suburban Oswego and the three Action Pac candidates in Barrington.

Awake Illinois, a statewide conservative parent group, is supporting candidates opposed by the Democratic Party.

The organization hosted school board candidate trainings during the fall and winter. It declined an interview, but in a statement said: “If supporting academic excellence, equality in schools, children’s innocence, parental rights, and lower property taxes makes us ‘extreme,’ then so be it.”

The group said the Democratic party is helping candidates that support an “anti-child, anti-parent, anti-freedom agenda.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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March 25, 2023 at 08:55AM

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