Kerr, Underly Strike Sparks In Debate
Candidates for state school superintendent reveal very different views on voucher schools, other issues.
The state superintendent candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN) was not a dull affair.
Jill Underly had technical difficulties that served to illustrate one of her campaign priorities. As a candidate she has emphasized improving rural broadband access. During the March 11 forum, her internet connection was so horrible (she lives on a farm in rural southwestern Wisconsin) she had to forgo video to conserve bandwidth.
In the Feb. 16 primary, Underly, the Pecatonica Area School District superintendent, received 27% of the vote, and Kerr, a retired Brown Deer superintendent, received 26%.
Anyone having trouble deciding between Kerr and Underly at this point in the campaign need only view the video of the hour-and-a-half long debate where the differences between the two were on display. Where the seven-person primary was a policy wonkish celebration of the candidates’ commitment to equity, now the two remaining candidates are locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of distracted Wisconsin voters — and their positions fall along predictable lines.
Breaking up DPI
The first issue to turn up the heat was a question regarding Kerr’s March 10 announcement that she wants to “decentralize” DPI to “disperse the bloated bureaucracy” throughout the state so it isn’t “bogged down by Madison dysfunction.”
Underly dismissed Kerr’s idea as an expensive distraction: “This decentralization really is a solution in search of a problem,” said Underly, noting that even though DPI headquarters are in Madison, there are offices throughout the state. “I really don’t feel that there is a problem with how DPI is run, and in particular, that plan costs a lot of money. And I think the last thing that kids need when they return to school this fall is a discombobulated DPI. We don’t need more chaos as we navigate this pandemic.”
Following the money
Although both candidates in the officially nonpartisan race say they are Democrats, Kerr appears to be courting conservative voters, and she has received donations from Friends of Alberta Darling. Darling (R-River Hills), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, has advanced the agenda of private school vouchers in the Legislature. Kerr received $2,000 from George and Susan Mitchell, longtime voucher advocates and former leaders of School Choice Wisconsin. Notably, she also received a $15,000 donation from Pennsylvania ultra-conservative Arthur Dantchik, who has donated $147,000 to Wisconsin Republicans, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Underly came into the primary with a big boost of an endorsement and an $18,000 contribution from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Educational Association Council (WEAC). Her list of endorsements now includes most of the former primary candidates.
Kerr has been criticized for accepting donations from donors who support expansion of the state’s charter schools and voucher program. Kerr defended her position.“The state superintendent is in charge of all children in the state of Wisconsin, and that does include school choice — private schools and vouchers — but that doesn’t mean they can’t be accountable,” she said.
“Vouchers are here to stay,” Kerr continued. “And so we need to stop fighting about this issue and figure out what we can do to elevate all kids.”
Chambers, who is director of Equity, Inclusion, and Innovation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison put a question to the candidates to clarify their positions on vouchers and independent, non-district-authorized charter schools: “Do you support or oppose private school voucher programs in the state of Wisconsin?”
Kerr’s reply was charged: “Yes. I support it because it is the law. And I believe that this was a very misleading question,” she continued. “And so I will say that it was difficult for me to answer it. I’m glad we’re going to set the record straight tonight, because I do support these children in these schools because they were created because they didn’t have a choice in their neighborhood public schools. I want to change that. I want all parents to have the choice of where to send their kids to school. And what I am worried about most is that our public schools are at a crisis right now today because some of our children are not in school face-to-face instruction full time. And so some of our parents have chosen to go to . . . private or voucher schools because their schools are not in face-to-face instruction.”
The matter is settled in Wisconsin, Kerr argued. “We’ve got to stop fighting amongst ourselves. This is a 40-year-old battle to me. This is in the rear-view mirror. We need to move forward.” (Wisconsin’s — and the nation’s — first modern private school choice program was founded in Milwaukee in 1990, 31 years ago.)
Kerr also defended state Republicans’ decision to tie federal funding to in-person instruction.
Underly disagreed, and defended local decision makers and educators for their choices during the pandemic. “There are reasons why some of our schools could not open their buildings, but it doesn’t mean that school hadn’t been in session,” Underly said. “Our teachers have been working their butts off trying to make sure that kids are receiving education through various modes, whether it’s face to face, virtual or a blended learning model.”
Underly stated she would advocate for a freeze on charters and vouchers in the state and push for equitable systems of accountability. “We also need to hold the independent charter schools accountable,” said Underly. “They don’t have locally elected school boards, yet they’re taking public funds. They’re taking resources out of our, our highest-poverty school districts like Milwaukee Public Schools. They’re also taking the best and brightest kids out of those communities and further segregating our schools. In the long term, we can not afford two public school systems.”
Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.