Jill Underly and Deb Kerr face off in the April 6 election for state school superintendent. (Graphic illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)
Jill Underly and Deb Kerr face off in the April 6 election for state school superintendent. (Graphic illustration by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

Voucher schools, resuming in-person instruction among the contrasts in a contentious April 6 race.

The contest to become Wisconsin’s next top education official offers stark contacts, with the leader of a rural school district supported by the state’s largest teachers union squaring off against a retired superintendent from the Milwaukee suburbs who has the backing of Republicans and has lauded the controversial Act 10 collective bargaining law. 

The differences don’t stop there between Pecatonica Superintendent Jill Underly and retired Brown Deer Superintendent Deborah Kerr, who face each other in the April 6 election for state superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). 

They emerged from a field of seven candidates seeking the job in the Feb. 16 primary. The winner will replace current state superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who was appointed in 2019 and decided not to seek election. 

Kerr, who retired last year as Brown Deer school district superintendent after nearly four decades as an educator, has backed resuming in-person instruction in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and is an advocate of expanding voucher schools and private charter schools.

“I believe that parents should have the choice of where to send their children to school,” Kerr said.

In addition, Kerr said she would dismantle the current DPI structure, moving it from Madison and opening offices in other state locations. 

Underly’s views on those topics are opposite those of her challenger. During a series of debates in recent weeks between herself and Kerr, Underly said she supports allowing local schools to determine when returning to face-to-face instruction is safe amid the ongoing pandemic. 

An outspoken opponent of voucher schools and private charter schools, Underly said she would halt the expansion of those schools that has occurred in recent years, a move that takes resources from public schools already lacking enough funding. 

“We don’t need to be expanding charter schools when our public schools are struggling financially,” Underly said. “We can’t afford to fund two separate school systems.”

Earlier: State Superintendent Candidate Makes Racist Tweet, Deletes Twitter Account

Rather than relocate the DPI from Madison, Underly said she would retain the agency’s central office in that city and continue the work of past state superintendents in advocating for Wisconsin’s public schools. 

While Kerr said she backs schools beginning classes earlier for the fall semester to make up for lost learning time during the pandemic, Underly said students and teachers may need a regular summer break before returning to school in the fall. 

The state superintendent race is officially nonpartisan, but Democrats in the state Legislature and Wisconsin’s congressional delegation have lined up behind Underly, as has the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state’s largest teachers union. Kerr, meanwhile, has garnered the support of Republicans, including former Gov. Scott Walker and state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), along with voucher school advocates. 

The contest has attracted outside money, largely from liberal organizations that support Underly, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. WEAC, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, and the liberal group A Better Wisconsin Together have spent more than $766,000 in support of Underly or opposing Kerr. The American Federation for Children, a pro-school voucher group, has spent $56,500 against Underly.

The race has grown increasingly contentious in recent weeks. Reports surfaced about Kerr using her school district email account during work hours last year to establish her private consulting firm. Kerr’s former campaign manager and legal counsel quit in February after Kerr, who is white, tweeted that she had been called a racial slur for Black people when she was 16.

Kerr also has received criticism about her handling of a financial scandal in 2009, during her time as Brown Deer superintendent.  

Underly, meanwhile, has been questioned for sending her children to a private school instead of a low-performing public school when she previously worked for DPI, and using her district email address to get contacts for her campaign.

Kerr has charged Underly with being in the pocket of the teachers union and being beholden to them, while Underly has pressed her opponent to release details about her handling of the Brown Deer financial situation.   

The state superintendent oversees statewide education policy, including the dispersing of grant funding and regulating teacher licensing. The superintendent must work with the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Tony Evers, a former head of DPI. 

Whichever candidate wins election will face the resumption of more in-person instruction in schools as cases of COVID-19, while down significantly from a few months ago, continue. Schools also face growing financial needs related to the pandemic, and persistent achievement gaps and race issues in schools persist. 

To find out where to vote and how to register to vote for the state superintendent race and other contests in the April 6 election, go to myvote.wi.gov.