The race for Wisconsin State Superintendent will feature educators with experience in school district leadership. Despite the non-partisan nature of the office, the candidates are becoming increasingly defined by traditional party issues.
Former Brown Deer School District Superintendent Deborah Kerr will face Pecatonica Area School District Superintendent Jill Underly in the Tuesday, April 6 Spring Election. In a crowded primary two months ago, Underly won about 27 percent of the votes while Kerr won about 26 percent. They are seeking the state superintendent position that had been held for more than a decade by Gov. Tony Evers and his appointed successor.
Kerr, who stepped down last year after 13 years as superintendent of Brown Deer schools in suburban Milwaukee County, has also served as president of the national School Superintendents Association and co-chair of the UW System Task Force for Advancing Teachers and School Leaders. She received a Doctorate of Educational Leadership from National-Louis University, Master of Education from University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Bachelor of Arts & Science from Valparaiso University.
Underly, currently superintendent of Pecatonica Area School District in southwest Wisconsin, previously worked as a teacher, principal and assistant director of teacher education for the state Department of Public Instruction. She received a Doctor of Philosophy in educational leadership & policy analysis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, masters in educational administration and licensure in educational administration from UW-Madison, Masters in secondary education curriculum and instruction from Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and bachelors in history and sociology from Indiana University in Bloomington.
Underly is backed by teachers unions, including the Wisconsin Education Association Council. She raised $17,960, spent $8,234 and had $30,253 cash on hand. She also listed $7,000 in loans. She listed a $2,500 donation from Charles Semko, of Munster, Ind., who wasn’t employed. Her campaign paid more than $7,500 to Nation Consulting to cover consultant fees, IT costs, a mailer and other expenses. After the close of the reporting period, Underly reported an $18,000 contribution from WEAC PAC.
Kerr has widespread backing from Republicans, calling herself a “pragmatic Democrat” and supporting the private school voucher program. She raised $28,229 over the first month of the year, spent $58,510 and had $19,861 left in the bank. She listed $9,842 in obligations and $21,003 in loans. She received $15,000 from Arthur Dantchik, a Pennsylvania trader who has a history of donating to pro-voucher candidates. She also spent $47,860 on a mailer and $2,857 on media billboards/outdoor advertising.
An investigation by the Wisconsin State Journal revealed Kerr solicited clients and organized branding for her private consulting business through her public school district email address, including several times during work hours, prior to her retirement as Brown Deer School District superintendent last year. Emails the newspaper obtained show Kerr used her district email address during work time to set up her private consulting firm, Lead Greatly LLC, on multiple different occasions from March to July 2020.
Underly, who opposes the use of tax dollars to pay for vouchers so parents can send their children to private schools, paid to send her children to a parochial school in downtown Madison during the 2013-’14 and 2014-’15 terms rather than a low-performing neighborhood school on the city’s southwest side. The family claims the decision was based on the private school offering full-day kindergarten and the public school not. When she became Pecatonica School District superintendent in 2015 her children enrolled there.
An on-line March 11 debate cosponsored by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Public Education Network showcased the partisan nature of the campaigns.
Underly is opposing the expansion of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers and wanting public funds to remain in public education. She cited a $4 billion loss in public education during the last decade for negatively affecting student learning.
“I strongly believe that the public should be investing their public dollars to make public schools better and meet the needs of all public school kids, versus placing public dollars in private schools,” Underly states on her campaign website. “Further, I think that most people in Wisconsin have no idea how much voucher expansion has cost them as taxpayers, and how much of the funding for vouchers has come from the aid that is general school aid that used to go to public schools. I have nothing against private schools, and they serve a purpose, of course, in the general fabric of what makes Wisconsin schooling great, but I do not believe that private schools that take funds from public schools should be funded with tax dollars.”
Kerr said she supports the private school voucher program because it is the law and the matter has been settled. She added public schools are in crisis right now because some children are not in class full-time due to the pandemic, and parents are choosing private schools to get in-person instruction.
During the debate, Kerr stated, “I’m glad we’re going to set the record straight tonight, because I do support these children in these schools because they didn’t have a choice in their neighborhood public schools. I want to change that. I want all parents to have choices and the choice of where to send their kids to school.”
Kerr proposes decentralizing the state DPI and moving Madison employees into offices across the state to better serve families. She also claims there is a lack of diversity among DPI staff in seeking greater inclusion in the department.
“We need to have a regional approach so that we can better serve the needs of all the kids because each region is different,” Kerr said. “It takes a village, and right now only the people who live in Madison get to work in Madison. I don’t think that fairly represents the entire state. So why should someone have to move to Madison to work in the DPI, and to work towards these worthy goals of creating a world-class education system?”
Underly disagreed there is a problem with how DPI is run, saying decentralization is an expensive option and there already are DPI offices throughout the state.
“I think the last thing that kids need when they return to school this fall is a discombobulated DPI. We don’t need more chaos as we navigate this pandemic,” Underly said.
Underly does not believe federal COVID-19 relief funds should be tied to in-person learning. Kerr believes there should be a connection.
In addressing opportunity gaps facing urban and rural districts, Underly called for investing in what works in the areas of early childhood education, high quality preschool, teacher recruitment and retention, transportation costs and high speed internet access and affordability. She added there are also equity gaps in education funding, seen throughout the state where some communities have new buildings and others do not.
“The well resourced communities will have better access to and then by extension their kids will have better access and achievement as a result,” Underly said. “We have to ensure at the end of the day our neediest kids, our most vulnerable kids, have the same access if not more access to the opportunities afforded to their well-resourced kinds in other communities.”
Kerr backs enhancing compensation packages in rural areas to attract, recruit and retain high quality teachers. She also supports increasing high speed internet to connect schools and community to improve education, telemedicine and business.
“There are ways to get over the affordability if we partner with businesses and local libraries,” Kerr said. “It is making sure all of our communities whether rural or urban have all the opportunities they need to have a high quality education.”
Underly said partisan endorsements are a component of her campaign due to the political nature of the voucher school issue. She added she has advocated for public education for the last 20 years.
“If that means it becomes partisan by having those who support public schools and don’t support expansion of vouchers or transfer of money from public into private schools making me partisan then, I guess I have to live with that,” Underly said. “It is not working because private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools.”
Kerr said she has embraced endorsements from advocates of school privatization, adding she is beholden first to children, parents and teachers. She adds this focus means she is not answering to a teachers union, calling herself a Democrat and an Independent who voted for Joe Biden for President in the last election.
“It is really unfortunate the Democrats have decided to make this a partisan issue,” Kerr said. “When I win I will be the first [state] superintendent to not be endorsed by a teachers union.”
State Superintendent is a constitutional office within the executive branch of the Wisconsin state government, and acts as the executive head of the Department of Public Instruction. The position is elected in a nonpartisan statewide ballot during the Spring primary of the same odd-numbered years that voters select members of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. The superintendent serves a term of office of four years.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Tuesday, April 6.