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Jill Underly defeats Deborah Kerr in state superintendent race

Jill Underly defeats Deborah Kerr in state superintendent race

Kerr-Underly (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Kerr (left), Underly (right)

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Jill Underly defeated Deborah Kerr to become the next top education official in Wisconsin.

As of 10 p.m., the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel election results tracker showed Underly with 57% of the votes counted so far. Underly, who had the support of most Democrats and liberals, will begin her four-year term as the state superintendent of Public Instruction in July.

"I'm honored and humbled by the trust voters have placed in me today and am overcome with gratitude for the incredible support that we've had on this journey," Underly said during a Facebook Live address Tuesday night.

Kerr received support from more traditional conservative circles. She thanked her supporters at an event broadcast on Facebook Live after the race was called and congratulated Underly.

"She fought hard and now I hope for her success," Kerr said. "Her success as our state superintendent will mean success for our kids."

During her address Tuesday, Underly promised to "always do what's best for our kids" and said making sure all schools will safely reopen in the fall would be her top priority.

"Wisconsin's kids and public schools face significant challenges as we work to return to normal, get every student caught up and support their mental health and well-being in the aftermath of this pandemic and the enormous trauma and disruption it's caused for all of us," she said. "Overcoming these hurdles won't be easy but I know if we work together we can get it done and do what's right for our kids."

She also stressed the importance of diversifying the teaching force, improving the state's school funding system and expanding early education among initiatives she hoped to tackle during her term.

The campaign

Underly and Kerr emerged as the general election candidates among a crowded seven-person field in the February primary election.

From that point on, contrasts between the candidates increased by the week as the nonpartisan race took on the feel of a partisan contest. The race saw record levels of fundraising, boosted by more than $900,000 of cash and in-kind donations from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to Underly’s campaign.

[Jill Underly's fundraising, buoyed by Democrats, unprecedented in state superintendent race]

Kerr, who retired as the superintendent of Brown Deer schools last year, offered her support of school choice programs, including the state’s voucher program. Underly, the superintendent in the Pecatonica School District, spoke against spending money that could go to public schools to private institutions.

While they both said throughout the campaign that in-person learning was best for students, Kerr suggested that all districts needed to be back full-time immediately, while Underly was more deferential to local conditions.

The candidates traded accusations about use of their public email accounts. Underly also criticized Kerr’s handling of a financial controversy nearly a decade ago, while Kerr called Underly hypocritical for sending her children to a private preschool program while in Madison.

[Kerr, Underly increasingly drawing contrasts in State Superintendent race]

Kerr expressed interest in making the Department of Public Instruction more of a “customer service” department, while also offering conservative viewpoints like support for Act 10 legislation from a decade ago and suggesting that transgender girls shouldn’t be able to compete in girls sports.

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.