Meet the candidates for the Wisconsin Superintendent of the Division of Public Schooling

BY PETER CAMERON for Wausau Pilot & Review

On April 6, voters will elect the next Department of Public Instruction superintendent to oversee public education in Wisconsin.

Deborah Kerr, the former superintendent of the Brown Deer School District in the northern suburbs of Milwaukee, faces Jill Underly, the superintendent of the rural Pecatonica School District in southwest Wisconsin.

In the primaries with seven candidates in February, Underly took first place and received around 27% of the more than 326,000 votes cast. Kerr finished second and earned around 26%.

The race is officially impartial, but like campaigns for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, each side of the political spectrum supports a candidate. Kerr is backed by Conservatives, while Underly is backed by the state teachers’ union and the Liberals.

Kerr calls herself a “pragmatic democrat with conservative values” and campaigns for her support across the political spectrum. It supports the school choice voucher system, a favorite on the right. Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced on Twitter that he voted for Kerr and called her a “proven reformer who wants all children to do well in government or private schools!” Public schools in Wisconsin are typically run by locally elected school boards.

Underly describes itself as “100% pro-public schools”, opposes the school voucher system and wants more accountability for schools that accept vouchers. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), which bills itself as the state’s largest teachers’ union, “recommends” Underly for the top spot, according to a press release they issued before elementary school.

In Wisconsin, the local school districts decide whether to offer in-person or virtual classes so the state superintendent can’t force their hands. But Underly, whose own Pecatonica school district has provided students with personalized training for most of the pandemic, has insisted that individual schools must do what is safest and best for them, whether this is bringing all the children back by doing use a hybrid plan or teach virtually. Kerr says all schools must bring students back, citing research showing relatively low levels of COVID-19 prevalence in schools.

White Kerr made headlines on primary day when she responded to a viral question on Twitter asking users to tell the first time they were called the n word. The author of the tweet said the question was meant for blacks. Kerr apologized and deleted her account.

“We have moved forward and my black community surrounds me because they know I have the most experience, equity, diversity and inclusion,” she said. “We’ll all make mistakes from time to time, but we learn from them.”

Governor Tony Evers served as the state superintendent of public education for ten years before being elected director general of the state. His deputy ended his term in office but declined to run for election.

The Wausau Pilot & Review conducted interviews with both candidates. Here were some of their answers.

Deborah Kerr, PhD

Deborah Kerr, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction nominee

Age: 63

Family: man

Education:

PhD in Educational Leadership from National Louis University

MA, Education, University of Alaska-Fairbanks

BA, Valparaiso University

Why should voters choose you?

I am uniquely prepared. I have experience at the state and national levels. I was an elected president of our state superintendent association and our national superintendent association. I’ve put together a non-partisan team to run my campaign, and that’s exactly what I want to do: work with people on both sides of the aisle to be education advocates and make sure we get what we need.

How do you differ from your opponent?

I have always run this campaign with children on the front lines. I am committed to children, families, and teachers in that order. My opponent is committed to the teachers’ union. We have to bring our children back to school face-to-face five days a week, and right now the teachers’ unions are holding some of our school districts hostage and not allowing them to go back to school.

How can we catch up with students from educational setbacks as a result of the pandemic?

We will catch up with children. It will take some time, however. We could be in this recovery for a few years. I think if you put the resources in the right places for targeted interventions, for intensive tutoring and for cooperation with all of our local associations, whether foundations, boys and girls clubs, YMCAs or churches. We need to make sure our children are good at reading and arithmetic. Our twelfth graders need to make sure they all have their credits to graduate. I think this will provide opportunities for alternative and creative planning. So let’s be innovative and look at summer a little differently. If children and parents want to attend summer school, I would strongly encourage more robust summer school programming.

Why do you want to decentralize the teaching department?

The public education department needs to become a responsive customer service agency. Currently, the only employees at DPI are in Madison (Editor’s Note: DPI is headquartered in Madison but has several offices across the state). That doesn’t represent the stakeholders across the state …

I would take a regional approach and make sure we have boots on the ground and my local staff support the school districts and leaders. Part of the problem is that the DPI doesn’t understand what’s going on in Hurley, Bayfield, or Green Bay.

Jill Underly, PhD

Jill Underly, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Candidate in Hollandale, WI on March 7, 2021.

Age: 43

Family: Husband, two children, 12 and 14 years

Education:

PhD in Philosophy, Educational Leadership, and Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin

MA, Education Administration and Licensing in Education Administration, University of Wisconsin

MA, Secondary Education Curriculum and Tuition, Indiana University-Purdue University

BA, History and Sociology, Indiana University

Why should voters choose you?

Because I have a diverse experience, a depth and breadth of experience at all levels of public school, from early childhood to college and also at the DPI (Editor’s Note: Underly worked at UW-Madison as a Senior Student Services Coordinator and I have worked at DPI for about five years each and worked at all levels of the public school.I also led a school district through this pandemic.

How do you differ from your opponent?

My depth and breadth (of experience) are greater because I’ve worked at all levels, from preschool through 12th. I’ve also worked in higher education and the State Department (of Education). I have a good reputation for being a pro teacher, but ultimately they really are 100% pro public schools. I am a pro kid. I want to do everything I can to make sure our children are successful.

How can we catch up with students from educational setbacks as a result of the pandemic?

We have to meet the children where their needs are, regardless of the type of class, when they come back in the fall. Parents are not enthusiastic about the summer school. They want to visit the family and take a break from online study and the screens. I think parents in general are not thrilled with the prospect of a renovation this summer. An early start date could be helpful, perhaps in the middle or early August, and enrichment as many things have been missed by children in the past year. Maybe after school programming, enrichment-based, especially before K-8. But then we can certainly offer intervention time to children struggling with reading and math.

What do you think of your opponent’s plan to decentralize the teaching department from their Madison headquarters?

I think it’s just another example of poor judgment. Decentralizing DPI would cost a lot of money. We no longer need disruptions in our public school system. We need children who can return to our schools and staff who can return to our schools and have a reliable DPI. We don’t need any work or service breaks or anything like that.

Peter Cameron writes for The Badger Project, a Wisconsin-based impartial, nonprofit investigative journalism organization. He can be reached at [email protected]

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