BY PETER CAMERON for Wausau Pilot & Review

On April 6, voters will choose the next state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction, which oversees public education in Wisconsin.

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

In the 7-candidate primary election in February, Underly finished first, earning about 27% of the more than 326,000 votes cast. Kerr came in second, earning about 26%.

The race is officially nonpartisan, but like campaigns for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, each side of the political spectrum is supporting a candidate. Kerr is backed by conservatives, while Underly is supported by the state teachers union and liberals.

Kerr calls herself a “pragmatic Democrat with conservative values” and touts her support across the political spectrum. She backs the school choice voucher system, a favorite on the right. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced on Twitter that he voted for Kerr and called her a “proven reformer who wants all kids in government-run schools or private schools to do well!” Public schools in Wisconsin are generally run by locally-elected school boards.

Underly describes herself 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 touts itself as the state’s largest teachers union, “recommends” Underly for the top spot, according to a press release they issued before the primary.

In Wisconsin, local school districts decide whether to offer instruction in-person or virtually, so the state superintendent cannot force their hands. But Underly, whose own Pecatonica School District has offered students in-person education for most of the pandemic, has emphasized that individual schools must do what is safest and best for them, whether that be bringing all the kids back, using a hybrid plan or teaching virtually. Kerr says all schools need to bring students back, citing the research that shows relatively little spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Kerr, who is white, made headlines on the day of the primary election when she responded to a viral question on Twitter asking users to recount the first time they were called the n-word. The writer of the tweet said the question was intended for Black people. Kerr apologized and deleted her account.

“We’ve moved forward and my Black community is surrounding me because they know I have the most experience, equity, diversity and inclusion,” she said. “We are all going to make mistakes from time to time, but it’s what we learn from it.”

Gov. Tony Evers had held the position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction for ten years before being elected the state’s chief executive. His deputy completed his term, 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, candidate for Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Age: 63

Family: husband

Education: 

Doctorate of Educational Leadership, National Louis University

MA, Education, University of Alaska-Fairbanks

BA, Valparaiso University

Why should voters choose you?

I’m uniquely prepared. I have experience across the state and national level. I’ve been an elected president of our state superintendent association and our national superintendent association. I have put a bipartisan team together to run my campaign, and that’s exactly what I intend to do: work with people on both sides of the aisle to be educational advocates and make sure we get what we need.

How do you differ from your opponent?

I have always run this campaign with kids at the forefront. I am beholden to kids, families and teachers, in that order. My opponent is beholden to the teachers union. We need to get our kids back in 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 get students caught up from educational setbacks caused by the pandemic?

We are going to catch kids up. It’s going to take time though. We might be in this recovery for a couple years. I think if you put the resources in the right places for targeted interventions, for intensive tutoring, and partnering with all of our local associations, whether its foundations, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, churches. We are going to have to make sure our kids are proficient at reading and math. Our 12th graders need to be making sure they’ve got all their credits to graduate. I believe that’s going to provide opportunities for alternative and creative scheduling. So let’s be innovative, let’s look at summer a little differently. If kids and parents want to attend summer school, I would strongly support having more robust summer school programming.

Why do you want to decentralize the Department of Instruction?

The Department of Public Instruction needs to become a responsive customer service agency. Right now, the only people that work at DPI are in Madison (Ed. note: DPI is headquartered in Madison, but it does have some offices around the state). That does not represent the stakeholders across the state…

I would take a regional approach and make sure we have boots on the ground and have my staff in the field supporting the school districts and the leaders. Part of the problem is the DPI does not understand what is going on in Hurley or Bayfield or Green Bay.

Jill Underly, PhD

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

Age: 43

Family: husband, two children, ages 12 and 14

Education:

Doctor of Philosophy, Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin

MA, Educational Administration and licensure in Educational Administration, University of Wisconsin

MA, Secondary Education Curriculum and Instruction, 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 experiences in all levels of public schooling, from early childhood all the way through college and also at the DPI (Ed note: Underly worked at UW-Madison as a senior student services coordinator and at DPI for about five years each), I’ve worked at every level of public school. I also have been leading a school district through this pandemic.

How do you differ from your opponent?

My depth and my breadth (of experience) is wider, because I’ve worked at every level, from pre-K all the way to 12. I’ve also worked in higher ed and at the state department (of education). I’ve got a strong reputation of being pro-teacher, but at the end of the day, it’s really 100% pro-public schools. I’m pro-kid. I want to do everything that I can to make sure that our kids are successful.

How can we get students caught up from educational setbacks caused by the pandemic?

We have to meet the kids where their needs are, whatever the mode of instruction is when they come back in the fall. Parents are not enthused about summer school. They want to visit family and take a break from online learning and screens. Parents in general, I think, are not excited about the prospect of remediation this summer. Getting an early start date could be helpful, maybe start in mid- or early August, and provide some enrichment, because there’s a lot of things kids missed out on in the past year. Maybe providing after school programming, enrichment-based, especially pre-K-8. But then we can certainly provide intervention time for kids who are struggling with reading and math.

What do you think of your opponent’s plan to decentralize the Department of Instruction from its Madison headquarters?

I think it’s just another example of poor judgement. That would cost a lot of money to decentralize DPI. We don’t need to have any more disruptions in our public school system. We need kids to be able to come back into our schools and staff to come back into our schools and have a DPI that’s dependable. We don’t need to have any disruptions in work or services or anything like that.

Peter Cameron writes for The Badger Project, a Wisconsin-based nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative journalism organization. He can be reached at pcameron@thebadgerproject.org.