On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters will choose a new state superintendent of public instruction to lead the state’s education system.
This position is currently held by Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who decided not to run after she was appointed to the position in 2019. The office was previously held by Gov. Tony Evers, who resigned to take the office of governor.
Deborah Kerr, the former superintendent of Brown Deer Schools, is running against Jill Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica School District in southwestern Wisconsin. The candidates differ primarily in their approach to reopening schools during the pandemic and the expansion of the voucher funding system.
But what does the state superintendent do, and why are they important? We’ll answer these and other questions below to help you cast your ballot.
What does a state superintendent do?
The state superintendent oversees the state’s public education system, including charter schools and its voucher program with private schools. This includes, but is not limited to, evaluating school performance, licensing teachers and creating reports and public information on the state of public schools in Wisconsin. Recently, state superintendent Stanford Taylor has been most active in guiding Wisconsin schools through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The position is elected every four years in a nonpartisan election. If the incumbent resigns before their term is over, a replacement is appointed by the governor.
What are the major policy differences between the two candidates?
Kerr and Underly have drawn differences between themselves on the issues of reopening and the state’s school voucher program. Kerr has stated reopening the state’s schools as a priority, while Underly favors a local approach where individual districts can make the choice they feel is right for them. Milwaukee Public Schools, for example, has already signaled its intent to return to in-person learning, and some Milwaukee schools outside MPS have already reopened in-person learning.
Underly has also made clear her dissatisfaction with the state’s school voucher program, which allows private and charter schools to receive state funding based on their enrollment. Underly does not support expanding the program, though any changes to the funding formula would have to come from the state Legislature, not the state superintendent.
Who is backing each candidate?
Kerr is endorsed by the Wisconsin Reading Coalition, Decoding Dyslexia Wisconsin and the Wisconsin branch of the International Dyslexia Association. She is also endorsed by a long list of individuals, many of whom are connected to the Brown Deer School District Kerr used to lead as superintendent.
Underly has more institutional support, including endorsements from the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, Voces de la Frontera and Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC. Underly is also backed by many local and state elected officials, most of them Democrats, and community leaders. You can view a full list here.
What are the candidates saying?
We asked both candidates the following questions. We heard back only from Underly’s campaign but will update with Kerr’s answers if and when we receive them.
1. What are the main policy points in which you differ from your opponent?
Underly: I’m running for state superintendent to disrupt the systems of inequity that are plaguing our public schools. I’m 100% in support of our public schools, and my platform is centered on what kids need and fixing the broken school funding formula, in contrast to my opponent, who has bizarrely called for the relocation of the Department of Public Instruction, a plan that would be incredibly costly and take further funds away from our schools that are already in a funding crisis. I believe I have the experience, qualifications, perspective, and record of sound financial management to lead our schools out of this crisis.
2. The Wisconsin Policy Forum recently released a report highlighting the interpersonal and institutional obstacles facing teachers of color in Wisconsin. How would you use the powers of your office to remove the obstacles facing teachers of color listed in the report?
Underly: The lack of diversity in our teaching profession is deeply concerning. Our Black and Brown students deserve to have teachers that look like them — and our white students need to have teachers that don’t.
One of the most critical things we need to be focused on in terms of diversifying our teacher workforce in Wisconsin is ensuring that our educators are paid the family-sustaining wages they deserve.
I also have other ideas on areas we can focus on that support teachers in the workplace:
- School-based professional development;
- Reorganization of roles and responsibilities that are rooted in evidence-based practices such as collective efficacy among staff;
- Student loan forgiveness for teachers and administrators;
- Grow Your Own Programs — that can recruit students right out of high school and keep them in cohorts throughout their college programs.
Most importantly, we need to have a goal of increasing teachers of color. It needs to be built into every program, policy and initiative around teacher recruitment and retention. We need to make teaching an attractive profession to our best and brightest and encourage young people to consider teaching as a career path at a very young age.
3. When Milwaukee schools reopen, how will you use your office to support student mental health and emotional well-being?
Underly: This pandemic has been incredibly traumatic to our students. This has been a major disruption to their education and social lives, and many have lost their financial stability or worse, a loved one to the pandemic. It’s crystal clear that we’re facing a mental health crisis that must be addressed in order for us to truly recover.
As state superintendent, I’ll be a strong advocate for increased funding to our schools so they can hire professionals and provide the mental health resources our students need. I’m a big fan of the governor’s budget proposal that calls for this increase in funding.
Additionally, I’ll work to ensure that the Department of Public Instruction can help provide guidance and a framework to help facilitate local partnerships with school districts and community organizations. We need to help provide before- and after-school support and other programs for our students’ mental health and emotional well-being as we work to recover from COVID-19.
More on state superintendent’s race
More on spring election