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Wisconsin school chief candidates Deb Kerr, Jill Underly clash on unions, vouchers

Wisconsin school chief candidates Deb Kerr, Jill Underly clash on unions, vouchers

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Kerr (left), Underly (right)

The candidates for state superintendent clashed over reopening schools for in-classroom learning, Act 10 and teacher unions, and the private school voucher program during the first of two Thursday forums.

Former Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr and Pecatonica Superintendent Jill Underly meet April 6 in the race to become superintendent of public instruction. The race is officially nonpartisan, but conservatives have largely lined up behind Kerr, while Underly has the backing of Democrats.

During a morning forum hosted by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Underly touted her endorsement from the statewide teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council. She also criticized Act 10, the law passed a decade ago that effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers and cut their pay.

Underly said Act 10 “was a big hit to the teaching profession” and discouraged many people from entering the field. She criticized Kerr for praising the law in 2013, when she called it a “gift that keeps on giving for a while.”

Kerr said she used the law, which forced teachers to pay more for retirement and pension benefit, to save money at Brown Deer, which ultimately meant saving teacher positions. She noted her endorsement by Brown Deer teachers, while pushing back against Underly’s backing from the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which led the fight against Act 10.

“When I did not get the endorsement of the teacher union, it was not a deal breaker for me because I have always worked well with everyone,” Kerr said. “I am beholden to kids, families and teachers, in that order. I am not beholden to the teacher’s union only.”

Kerr, who said she reveres and honors teachers, is endorsed by Republican former Gov. Scott Walker, who signed Act 10 into law. Kerr calls herself a “pragmatic Democrat” who voted for President Joe Biden.

Underly, who formerly worked for the state education department under then-secretary and now Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, opposed Act 10 and supported the attempt to recall Walker from office. Underly called Evers her “favorite boss.”

Kerr emphasized the need for schools to reopen for in-classroom teaching, an issue Republicans in the Legislature have also been pushing, saying she would take a “hands-on” approach to make that happen.

“We need to get all of our kids back in school,” she said. “The parents are not only mystified that some of our larger public schools aren’t open, they are angry.”

The state’s two largest school districts, Milwaukee and Madison, have yet to return to in-classroom teaching. Madison is scheduled to begin phasing in a return for students on Tuesday, starting with kindergartners. Other large urban districts have a mix of classroom and online learning.

Underly said everyone wants schools open, but the larger districts face challenges that smaller ones do not, while noting the importance of vaccinating teachers.

One of the biggest contrasts between Kerr and Underly is the private school voucher program, which has been a litmus test in the state superintendent race for decades.

Underly wants to freeze enrollment in the programs, which divert taxpayer dollars to help public school students attend private schools. Kerr supports the programs and said she wants to bring all parties together to discuss a path forward.

“This has been an issue that’s divided us the past 40 years,” Kerr said. “That’s got to stop. ... I would work with people on both sides of the aisle to say what is fair, what is equitable, what are we going to do to make sure we serve all kids in Wisconsin.”

Despite the candidates’ differences during the morning forum, during an evening forum hosted by the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition the two agreed on the need for more effective and humane strategies than current methods of restraint and seclusion for disciplining students. They also agreed on the need to close the special education funding gap, expand early childhood education, introduce restorative-justice practices to districts to end the school-to-prison pipeline, and close the gap in educational outcomes for students with mental health issues as well as other issues.

Both candidates were asked whether use of seclusion and restraint should be banned in Wisconsin’s public schools. Kerr said she would like to see a reduced number of incidents in which the methods are used. Underly said banning the methods is a worthy goal and every effort should be made to prevent their use.

The winner in the state superintendent’s race will replace Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who took over the position in 2019 after Evers was elected governor but declined to seek a full term.

The state superintendent oversees education policy in Wisconsin. That includes setting priorities and a two-year budget request, managing a variety of education programs statewide, including the voucher and school choice programs, as well as dispersing grant funding to schools and districts.

The superintendent’s powers are limited, and he must implement the laws as passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Evers.

State Journal reporter Elizabeth Beyer contributed to this report.

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