The 2021 Candidates for State Superintendent

The 2021 Candidates for State Superintendent
Wisconsin superintendent of schools candidates Deborah Kerr and Jill Underly discuss the top issues in the state, including reopening schools, achievement gaps and the contentious nature of the race.

Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

And we are joined now by the candidates. Deborah Kerr joins us from Milwaukee. Jill Underly appears from Madison and thanks to both of you for being here.

 

Deborah Kerr:

Good afternoon.

 

Jill Underly:

Of course.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Hey. So Marisa teed up some of the issue areas for us to explore, first on reopening of schools. Deb Kerr, one of your campaign ads calling for full reopening says we can no longer play politics with our children. How are politics being played on this issue of reopening schools?

 

Deborah Kerr:

Several months I put out a plan to reopen our schools safely and sensibly. I had a statewide reentry plan and recovery plan. What’s happened is the five — some of the five largest districts in the state have not reopened because they’ve been strong-armed by the teachers unions. So that’s what I mean about the politics. We need to open our schools safely. The science shows we can open our schools safely, that students don’t spread the disease and teachers don’t necessarily have to be vaccinated to open schools safely. We have over 70% of schools open in Wisconsin. And unfortunately, the majority of those schools that are open are with white students. Our predominantly minority students, our black and brown students, are not back in school yet full-time and we need to get back to business so we can get on the road to recovery.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

To you, Jill Underly. What would be your guidance to districts now open or those that aren’t yet fully back in person if, as these new trends are showing, COVID cases start going up again? Your guidance to districts?

 

Jill Underly:

Yeah. My guidance is I would suggest that the teachers get vaccinated especially if the cases are going up but my school has been open. We really worked hard to make sure my school could be open and we did so safely. We made sure that we were able to space people out and we also made sure that we hired additional personnel and had PPE. Like I said, my school has been open. We did so safely. That’s what I’ve been saying all along, is that the local school districts know how to do this and they should be able to make that decision.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, this is a non-partisan elected office as I don’t have to tell you both, yet Deb Kerr has the backing of Republicans, including former governor Scott Walker. Jill Underly, you have the backing and endorsement of those that include the Democratic Party, politicians and unions. In a forum this week, Ms. Kerr, you accused Democrats of buying this election for your opponent. Why in your estimation would they do that?

 

Deborah Kerr:

Well, I don’t know. It’s unfortunate. I’m deeply saddened by it because there’s been name-calling. There’s been disparaging remarks made about my school community in Brown Deer and the Democrats and unions have put over a million dollars into my opponent’s campaign. She has dug up dirt on my previous situation in Brown Deer with a business manager. She’s hurting my Black and brown students and families by talking about issues that she has no understanding of. So those million dollar ads are being run right now. It’s very unfortunate. This is the kind of thing you see in a gubernatorial race, not a state superintendent’s race.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Jill Underly, you have said it saddens you that this race has become so partisan. How so and why does it sadden you?

 

Jill Underly:

It saddens me because supporting our public schools, which serves 860,000 kids throughout Wisconsin, it has become partisan. There are issues such as funding, for example, reopening the schools. Those certainly are things that have made it become partisan. But organizations and individuals on both sides are lining up. For example, the big right wing anti-public education donors are of course supporting Dr. Kerr. And then grassroots, progressives, member-funded organizations are supporting me. You know, I’m proud of the support I’m getting because people are investing in a leader that they know has good judgment, can manage a budget and will make our schools stronger for every kid. I’ve been working very hard to get my message out to voters and I’m proud of the support I’ve been receiving from every corner of the state.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

At this point we want to go this direction. We asked each of you to come prepared to ask a question directly of your opponent. We will go first to you, Jill Underly. What is your question for Deb Kerr?

 

Jill Underly:

Okay. All right. Judgment is an issue in this campaign. Deb, you’ve careened from crisis to crisis in this race. You’ve got a financial problem from ten years ago still dogging you. There’s an ethics complaint about your using taxpayer resources to set up and recruit clients for your business. You had to delete your Twitter account but not before you started blocking critics. Your campaign team quit on you and your former campaign manager has endorsed me now. So my question is how can voters have confidence you have the good judgment and discipline to run this critical state agency?

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Ms. Kerr, go ahead with your response to that question.

 

Deb Kerr:

Well, first of all, I have over 40 years of experience of being in education, 34 years of public school education. I have cross sector experience. I’m parochial educated and been a superintendent for 20 years. And so I have lots of experience supervising employees and staff. Unfortunately, because this has become a partisan issue, people’s livelihoods have been threatened. And that’s so unfortunate because it didn’t have to go that way. But you also have an ethics complaint against yourself. The people who have been brought forth with those types of ethics complaints have gone to prison. The ethics complaint I have, those people have not. I had incidental contact in starting a new business and I did not exchange any kind of contractual arrangement. So I think you have brought up something that has been very devastating to my Brown Deer community and they are behind me 100%. In fact, they have come out and put ads in the paper supporting me and they will always back me because I would have never been able to stay as a superintendent in Brown Deer for 13 years if I had some other kind of financial irregularity. So you are misspoken about that and that’s very unfortunate.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

At this point I’d like to dig into some of that, but I also want to get to some of the important issues in this race. So I will ask you, Deb Kerr, what is your question then for Jill Underly?

 

Deb Kerr:

When a candidate spends all their time and their resources putting down someone else, a former colleague, it’s because they know they’re not capable of competing at a high level. You clearly, Jill, do not understand our state. You approach everything from a partisan bureaucrat mindset and I would like to hear how that is best for our state’s future. How will you take your partisan approach, strong-armed by the teachers union, to our state and work with Republican Legislature, especially after calling them transphobic? I’d like to hear how you continuing what has gone on in the DPI for years is going to make us better when Wisconsin kids have clearly suffered under your partisan style of leadership.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Ms. Underly, go ahead.

 

Jill Underly:

All right. Thank you. So this campaign is about good judgment, and I’ve got over 20 years of experience in rural, urban and suburban school districts as well as in higher education and including the Department of Public Instruction. This campaign is about equity, a leader who can bring equity to full-day, full-week, 4K, after-school programming, expanding mental health access to our kids too. It’s about leading our school districts through this pandemic. I have a lot of people supporting me, dozens of superintendents, school board members, county board members, city council. I have a bipartisan group of current and former legislators. And they support me because I’m dedicated to Wisconsin’s kids, our public schools, and I’ve demonstrated the good judgment and financial management we need in this position.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

I think we leave that section there. Thank you very much. Very pointed questions, difficult in this non-partisan race, once again. But thank you. I want to get now to achievement gaps. Two educators in Marisa’s reporting spoke to their concern that the past year had exacerbated achievement gaps between students of color and white students. What is the very best way to eliminate these gaps? Jill Underly, first to you.

 

Jill Underly:

That’s a great question. Eliminating these gaps is something I’m very passionate about. I reflect on them as opportunity gaps however because achievement gaps make it sound like it’s something the kids did to underachieve but really it’s about opportunities and the zip code you live in determines your educational opportunities and your outcomes. So in order to address this, we have to look at equity. We have to look at the programs that work, such as expanding full-day 4K to full week. Wrap-around care, wrap-around child care for our elementary school kids, looking at expanding mental health access to our communities, especially our underserved communities as well and then also recruiting teachers and retaining those teachers, especially teachers of color because if we’re truly going to erase these gaps, we need to make sure we have teachers that look like our students. But kind of underlying all of this is the fact that our school funding formula is broken. We need to infuse it with additional resources so we can provide these opportunities for our kids.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Deb Kerr, what’s your first priority in addressing achievement gaps or opportunity gaps, as Dr. Underly refers to them?

 

Deb Kerr:

Well, first of all, we have to acknowledge the serious nature of these achievement gaps and unfortunately under the current leadership there’s been ten years of these achievement gaps across the country between our Black and white students. We need to get Wisconsin off the list of under-performing as compared to all the other states in the United States. I will do that with my experience in leading a very diverse school district and scaling the activities that I did by focusing on literacy and math. So I was able to close achievement gaps, raise achievement and get almost 100% graduation rate of Black, brown and white students. It can be done with focused interventions and high-quality curriculum and staff development not only for teachers, but for principals, superintendents and parents too. We’ve got to get on — we’ve got to get back to school so we can be working on these exact issues. I do agree that we need to take a look at the way schools are funded. And I want to remind everyone that the state superintendent is in charge of all students. It’s the law. So I want to bring people to the table to talk about how can we best fund all kids and what does a high-quality education look like so we can close these achievement gaps.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

As important as that issue is, I wanted to jump to something that was mentioned previously and that is the fact that Legislatures across the country and here in Wisconsin are considering these laws to prohibit transgender athletes from playing on girls sports teams. Deb Kerr, you support those kinds of prohibitions. Tell us why.

 

Deb Kerr:

Well, one of the things I’ve been frustrated with is some of these questions that really are not in the purview of the state superintendent. But I speak to them from my personal experiences. So I’m a college athlete, I’m a girl of title IX. I am not transphobic. I’ve never been transphobic. I’ve worked with my kids in school district and my teachers in many, many ways to support them no matter where they come to us, what entry point and who they are and what they want to be. And so that information, the law and the Legislature, those kind of things are very complex. And they’re very nuanced. And so unfortunately my answer was taken out context in a short, little sound-bite.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

Okay. Jill Underly, your response to that same question? Your position on any kind — any kind legislative bills that would ban transgender athletes from competing on girls or women’s teams.

 

Jill Underly:

All right. Thank you. So look. Serving all kids means serving all kids. And we can’t turn our back on those who need our help the most. The truth is that this is an issue meant to divide and distract us. This race is about who has the best judgment, the best financial management skills and the best vision for the future. The comparison is clear.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

I want to go to this important issue and that is one of the starkest differences in your positions around tax-funded voucher schools or school choice. Governor Evers’ budget calls for a cap on choice enrollment. Should it be capped? First to you, Deb Kerr.

 

Deb Kerr:

First of all, it’s the law. And I don’t think the Legislature is going to pass that law to cap anything. I think what we need to think about is what’s going to happen in four years when those caps come off. Right now our public schools are in a crisis because we’re not back in school full time. I’m worried that our public school parents who have gone to private schools or voucher schools because they’re on face to face instruction are not coming back. I would love to have every parent choose their public school in their own neighborhood, but this is exactly why we have school choice in Wisconsin to give parents that choice and I respect that liberty.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

I don’t have a lot of time left but of course I want you, Jill Underly, to have the opportunity to talk about whether or not you think that enrollment on school choice should be capped.

 

Jill Underly:

I do think it should be capped. I’m not looking to take a voucher away from a student that currently has one. But in the long term, we have to look at our school finance. In the long term, we can’t afford to finance two school systems in Wisconsin and we need to make sure that every child has access to a quality education in a public school every day, period.

 

Frederica Freyberg:

We leave it there. Deb Kerr, Jill Underly, thank you very much.

 

Deb Kerr:

You’re welcome.

 

Jill Underly:

Thank you.


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