Jill Underly, Wisconsin's State Superintendent of Public Instruction. (Photo provided)
Jill Underly, state Superintendent of Public Instruction. (Photo provided)

Wisconsin’s state superintendent gives low grades to the Republican candidate for governor, whose plan for struggling schools is to give them even less support while speaking out against “wokeness.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly holds nothing back when it comes to assessing what politicians like Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels would mean for the future of public education—especially when Michels’ reaction to her recent State of Education speech was to accuse the state Department of Public Instruction with having gone “full woke.”

“I’m just thinking how silly that sounds,” Underly said on the UpNorthNews morning radio show. “I think it’s very clear in that response by that candidate, he has no idea what we’re doing in our schools to reach kids and to make sure kids feel safe and welcoming.” 

Underly’s address, delivered in the state Capitol rotunda, castigated Republicans who have plunged schools into political turmoil during the 11-plus years they have controlled the Legislature—maligning public education, imposing draconian budget limits, and belittling educators who try to close the achievement gaps of students from vulnerable populations.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s happening at the expense of kids,” Underly said. “They’re the kids that we worry about, the kids that don’t have enough food at home or the kids whose parents are having to work multiple jobs just to support their families, or the kids who don’t have a safe or supportive adult that they can talk to. And the fact that they get further targeted is extremely disheartening, but it’s [also] tragic that adults will target kids for political points like that.”

Underly said school districts are in critical need of support to address disparities that hold many students back from learning. She pointed to the most recent, obvious example—a record $5 billion state budget surplus that remains unused since GOP legislators put themselves on a 10-month, taxpayer funded break from legislating.

“Public education is about providing access to knowledge and opportunities for growth,” Underly said. “But the fact is, looking at a budget surplus, this legislature would rather starve kids of those opportunities than provide funding to schools. Because instead of offering solutions, they are attempting to undermine public education—through their funding decisions, and also by specifically targeting the relationship and trust between schools and families—all for political gain.”

Underly referenced the ongoing efforts to stop educators from supporting students with concerns related to their gender and sexual identities. At least two school districts in Wisconsin have been threatened with lawsuits over policies that allow students to use the pronouns with which they more closely identify, without needing consent from parents who may not be supportive of their child’s concerns and mental health.

“Affirming identities is suicide prevention. It’s proven self-care. It’s strong mental health practice,” Underly said. “Pronouns save lives.”

Michels, whose three children attended private schools in Connecticut and New York, singled out Underly’s remarks about inclusivity in his response to the speech.

“Tony Evers and Jill Underly are focused on imposing woke politics and gender ideology in the classroom,” Michels said. “We need education that teaches kids how to think — not what to think. Evers and Underly believe pronouns save lives. I believe that literacy and quality education saves lives.”

Underly, noting that educators can walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to teaching lessons and learning environments, said the hostility toward public schools from Republicans is a significant change from what Wisconsin used to experience.

“Public education used to be nonpartisan,” Underly said. “It didn’t matter, Republican or Democrat, whatever your political beliefs are. Schools are for everybody. It’s why school board elections are nonpartisan. It’s why my position is nonpartisan. And what we have had is that, especially in the past few years, is that even with all the people in the state of Wisconsin who pay property taxes and income taxes, it’s our legislature that has chosen not to spend it. We paid our taxes expecting it to go there.”