Jill Underly and Deb Kerr emerged from a pack of seven candidates on Tuesday's primary election as the top contenders for the April 6 election for state school superintendent. (Graphic illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)
Jill Underly and Deb Kerr emerged from a pack of seven candidates on Tuesday's primary election as the top contenders for the April 6 election for state school superintendent. (Graphic illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

Underly and Kerr emerge from a seven-candidate primary field.

Two candidates for the state superintendent of schools position who indicate a clear difference on the issue of taxpayer funding for private voucher and charter schools, garnered nearly identical vote totals in Tuesday’s primary election and will face off on April 6, with the winner to head the state Department of Public Instruction. 

Jill Underly, superintendent in the Pecatonica school district, tallied 88,900 votes and Deborah Kerr, retired Brown Deer district superintendent, received 86,045. 

Underly and Kerr were among seven candidates seeking the state’s top education job. Others included current assistant state superintendent Sheila Briggs, who received 50,741 votes, followed by Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, director of Gov. Tony Evers’ Milwaukee office, 36,829; retired West Salem schools Superintendent Troy Gunderson, 27,422; Milwaukee elementary school principal Steve Krull, 20,518; and Fond du Lac science teacher Joe Fenwick, 14,504. 

During several candidate debates in recent weeks, Underly was outspoken in her opposition to using public funds to help fund private voucher and non-district charter schools, saying doing so undermines dollars for public schools that already are too little. 

Kerr, meanwhile, refused to say that she opposes spending public money for vouchers. She has received support and donations from supporters of vouchers and political conservatives. In Tuesday’s election she carried many Wisconsin counties that supported President Donald Trump in the November presidential election. 

Among the candidates seeking the state superintendent job, Hendricks-Williams was the only candidate besides Kerr who didn’t take a stance against vouchers. 

Kerr retired last year after 13 years as Brown Deer schools superintendent. She also has been president of the national School Superintendents Association and co-chair of the UW System Task Force for Advancing Teachers and School Leaders. 

Before becoming superintendent in Pecatonica, Underly worked as a teacher, a principal and as assistant director of teacher education for the DPI.

The race attracted out-of-state donors and sometimes-heated debate about not only school voucher programs but such issues as operating schools safely during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and racism and other inequities in education

The state superintendent oversees the state’s more than 400 public school districts and typically is directly involved in education funding proposals. The position also offers direction on a range of issues, from operating schools during the pandemic, curriculum, teacher licensing and online education. 

State superintendents serve four-year terms, with no term limits.  

Gov. Tony Evers headed the DPI for more than a decade before being elected governor in November 2018. He was succeeded by Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who decided against seeking re-election. 

Wisconsin school districts have taken different approaches to continuing classes amid the pandemic. Some of the state’s largest schools, such as those in Madison and Milwaukee, have favored virtual  learning while others have had models that have mixed in-person and online instruction. Still others have remained open to face-to-face learning throughout the school year. 

During debates in recent weeks, candidates spoke of the importance of operating schools safely during the ongoing pandemic. Some advocated for overhauling the school funding system, saying the current structure furthers inequalities between richer and poorer districts. 

Kerr, Underly and the other candidates called for more dollars to go to special education, mental health and English language learners. Those changes and others would require the approval of the Republican-led state Legislature.

There were also two special elections for newly vacated seats in the state Legislature. In Senate District 13, State Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, advances to the April 6 general election against Democrat Melissa Winker for the seat formerly held by Republican Scott Fitzgerald, who now serves in Congress.

There was also a Republican primary in Assembly District 59 to succeed John Nygren, in which Elijah Behnke topped four others. Behnke will face Democrat Karl Jaeger in the April election . 

Looking ahead to 2022, Alex Lasry, son of Milwaukee Bucks owner and billionaire Marc Lasry, has filed paperwork to run as a Democrat for the US Senate seat currently held by Republican Ron Johnson, according to Inside Elections. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, a former Democratic legislator, has also filed paperwork to explore a run for the seat, and others are considering doing so.