Wisconsin state superintendent: students should have the ‘freedom to read’

Dr. Jill Underly says that public schools and libraries are seeing many of the same challenges as last year, but that she’s increasingly concerned about the “partisan and extreme rhetoric” being touted by politicians anxious to pander to certain bases of the conservative movement. (Photo via Shutterstock)

By Isabel Soisson

January 19, 2024

Dr. Jill Underly, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction, joined UpNorthNews Radio’s Pat Kreitlow earlier this month to discuss the current state of education in the Badger State.

Underly is responsible for overseeing public schools and libraries in the state, and she says that Wisconsin’s public schools are facing many of the same challenges they did in 2023.

Schools are seeing an exodus of support staff, as custodians, food service workers, paraprofessionals, and secretaries are leaving public education in favor of positions that provide a more suitable living wage. Underly said that many public schools are also still struggling to gain special education funding and address transportation challenges.

More than anything though, Dr. Underly said that the largest hurdle Wisconsin’s public schools are facing, is the “partisan and extreme rhetoric” being touted by politicians anxious to pander to certain bases of the conservative movement.

Books are under attack in the United States. According to the nonprofit PEN America, during the 2022-23 academic year, there were 3,362 recorded instances of books banned, an increase of 33% from the 2021-22 school year. Forty-three of these book bans happened right here in Wisconsin.

Underly says that these attacks are “distractions” that create additional stress and anxiety among teachers, as well as students. But her largest concern is that these attacks are “fueling distrust in our public institutions,” which ultimately leads to threats on democracy.

“We are falling away from the idea that schools are supposed to be nonpartisan,” she said. “There is a lot of misinformation out there about what books for example, are accessible to certain grades in different schools and so people get outraged over what’s available. When you don’t have trust in your public institutions…you’re on your way to a society that is not free.”

Underly offered some solutions on how to fight back against these attacks on public education.

Running for your local school board, for example, is a great idea, but not realistic for many parents. Instead, she says that “keeping the lines of communication open between parents and teachers” is incredibly vital to “protecting the freedom to read.”

“Go to meetings, support teachers, reach out to them, send notes,” she said.

She also urged community members to pay attention to who they’re voting for.

“What I hope voters keep in mind is that public schools are for everybody, they are our community stalwarts, they are for every kid, it doesn’t matter your background or means or who your parents are,” she said. “When you think about it, at the end of the day…we all want the same things. We all want a great school in our community, we all want our kids to be healthy and successful, we want great teachers, we want strong leaders, and we want to graduate great kids so that they can go out and return the favor in our communities.”

Underly says that public schools and libraries should provide a safe, inclusive, welcoming space that allows students to grow as “readers, learners, and people.”

“Everyone deserves access to information from all different perspectives,” she said. “We should all be able to find something that meets our needs in our libraries. Libraries are the spaces that are free of judgment.”


  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.



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