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022621 Political Note #361 Jill Underly Superintendent of Public Instruction Wisconsin
General Election 2021
Would you give money to a candidate for State School Superintendent in a state where you don’t live or work? Isn’t school superintendent an apolitical job? It was when I was growing up. In the 1950s. It was when I was hired as a local school superintendent in 1974. No one asked what political party I belonged to. I’m pretty sure my school board didn’t ask my successor that question in 1999.
But that was a local school board. For the state job, there is tension between the political and the apolitical even in states where the Commissioner or the State Superintendent is chosen in the most apolitical way — by a board that includes members appointed by the current governor, the previous governor, and the governor before that. In states which elect the state superintendent, there are efforts to reduce the political character of the job. One way is to hold the election in the spring rather than in November and to make the election as non-partisan as possible. The electorate chooses among candidates whose political affiliation is not identified. Wisconsin does that. Some states that elect their Supreme Court justices do the same thing. Wisconsin does that, too.
Can a state official who must weigh in on police in the schools or school segregation or how American history (or state history, for that matter) is taught or how Black history month is addressed in school or on high school football teams praying before the start of a game or on the existence of early childhood education be entirely apolitical? There are both political and educational issues.
In Wisconsin, Superintendent of Public Instruction can be political enough so that it is a training ground to be governor. The current governor of Wisconsin’s career is instructive. Tony Evers, a local school superintendent, ran to be State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1993 and lost. He ran again in 2001 and lost again. In an indication of just how non-partisan the post used to be, Tony Evers was appointed Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2001 by the man he lost to. Evers served as Deputy for 8 years, ran again to be Superintendent in 2009 and won. He was reelected in 2013 and 2017.
The education landscape in Wisconsin changed dramatically while Tony Evers was Superintendent. Not because of Tony Evers. The landscape changed because Republican Scott Walker, an extreme cultural and financial conservative, was elected governor in 2010. Walker promised to cut taxes and create jobs. To pay for the tax cuts, Walker targeted public employees and state support for schools and teachers. Walker went on to win a recall election in 2012 and reelection in 2014. He lost, however, in 2018 to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.
Tony Evers appointed Carolyn Stanford Taylor as Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2018 after he became governor. She was a career teacher and principal in Madison and an Assistant State Superintendent after that. She served in the job for almost three years and did not run for election. Wisconsin has had its non-partisan primary and now has two candidates for its run-off on April 6.
Jill Underly https://underlyforwi.com is one of the finalists. In the April 6 non-partisan run-off election, she’s the Democratic candidate. Deborah Kerr, who came in second in the non-partisan primary was the Republican candidate even though she is not registered with a political party and says she voted for Joe Biden in 2020. On one crucial issue, which Kerr does not mention in her website, she sides with Scott Walker Republicans. She supports public vouchers to pay all or part of the cost of private school tuition for individual students who choose private schools.
Kerr may do herself in without regard for issues of policy. A recent headline said: “Superintendent candidate Deborah Kerr apologizes for racially insensitive tweet.” That headline came just after the non-partisan primary, just as attention turned to the run off. It would be a mistake to assume that racial insensitivity disqualifies a candidate. For some constituents, the apology is the mistake.
Notwithstanding the headline, compare what the two candidates have to say about policy. What are they for? What are they against?
- Vouchers: She says: I am strongly against the expansion of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers.
- Early Childhood Education: She is for universal all day/every day 4K and optional 3K.
- Education Funding: She would make changes in state aid. That the state reimburses only 30% of the cost for special education and only 4% for the cost of educating English Language Learners harms school districts that serve these children.
- Support staff: She says every school building should have a school nurse, a social worker, and a mental health professional.
- Equity: Strengthen teacher recruitment and retention of teachers; conduct equity audits of schools to ensure that all children thrive in school.
- Teacher effectiveness: She would replace the currently used state measure of effectiveness with local measures.
- Personalize learning: She would eliminate the digital divide, ensure access to the internet for all, and provide professional development so that teachers and parents can support learning through technology.
- Partner with families and communities: She would find creative ways to partner with families and communities.
- Leadership: She would honor teachers, staff, administrators, school boards, business and community leaders and she would promote the profession to recruit the best and the brightest.
- Success for all students: She says she would focus on rigorous and relevant learning opportunities so that all kids are well prepared for success.
Jill Underly’s https://underlyforwi.com views are practical. She proposes improvement rather than transformation. Her financial solution tinkers. She does not propose a new financing formula. Deborah Kerr’s focus is on innovative, technological solutions to education and strategic solutions. Her solutions range from a heavy reliance on computers as instructional tools to vouchers.
What happens in Wisconsin is important to all of us. Out of 3.2 million, Joe Biden won Wisconsin’s electoral college votes by a little more than 20,000 votes. In 2022, Wisconsin will be voting on whether or not to reelect its Republican Senator and its Democratic governor. For political reasons alone, Wisconsin and the country will be better off with a non-controversial Superintendent of Public Instruction. Replacing Wisconsin’s Republican Senator could strengthen the Democratic hold on the Senate.
For education reasons, I’d rather tinker. Drastic change is hard on schools. We’ve been living with drastic change for about a year. The pandemic has forced us to rely on a new technology for teaching. We have learned something about teaching remotely. We would not want to rely solely on technology again unless we absolutely had to.
With Jill Underly, Wisconsin will go back to school. Teachers will integrate technologies into teaching rather than rely on them exclusively. Teachers will focus on what children need and on children’s learning (especially if Jill Underly gets her additional staffing and additional resources).
Support Jill Underly https://underlyforwi.com. She is one more voice for returning us to a world where problems are solved with practical solutions. Wisconsin needs that voice; just as we seem to have all needed Joe Biden’s voice nationally.