Kerr, Underly Campaigns for Schools Chief in Final Stretch

Elections

Kerr, Underly Campaigns for Schools Chief in Final Stretch

By Marisa Wojcik | Here & Now

April 2, 2021

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The race for Wisconsin's next superintendent of public schools is coming to the final push for candidates Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr. Key issues include reopening schools, achievement gaps, and the contentious nature of this race.


FREDERICA FREYBERG:
Just three days to the spring election, three days left in a statewide campaign to lead the Wisconsin K-12 school system. There are two candidates fighting for this job. Deborah Kerr has worked in parochial, charter, private and public schools including 13 years as superintendent of the Brown Deer School District. She is currently co-chair of the UW System Task Force for Advancing Teachers and School Leaders. Jill Underly is a former high school and middle school social studies teacher. She’s worked as a licensing specialist at the Department of Public Instruction and for the past six years, Underly has served as superintendent of the Pecatonica School District. Both candidates join us in just a moment. But first, Marisa Wojcik provides this overview of some of the key issues in the race.

MARISA WOJCIK:
The race for Wisconsin’s next superintendent of public schools is coming to the final push for candidates Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr, having just three days left in the campaign to appeal to voters before Tuesday’s election for the state’s top educator. The race highlights key contrasts between Democratic-backed Underly and GOP-backed Kerr, including how the state Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the largest budget of public funds, should have responded in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor closed schools in the spring last year. By the fall, school districts could decide for themselves whether to reopen classrooms, teach virtually or run a hybrid model. Some districts reopened right away in September with a virtual option. Others have waited, keeping students learning from home as positive COVID cases continued to rise through December.

SARAH OUZOUNIAN:
Some families hoped for us to open sooner. Some families are thinking we still could be waiting longer. So it differs so that’s why I’m excited because this is the chance now that families have the opportunity to choose.

MARISA WOJCIK:
The Madison Metropolitan School District recently began to phase kindergarten through 2nd grade back into the classrooms with older grades to return in April.

JACKIE SMITH:
As an educator, children bring joy and it really has been joyful even though there’s different routines and safety procedures we are following to keep everyone safe.

MARISA WOJCIK:
There’s no official record of which districts returned and when, but Madison and Milwaukee appear to be the last remaining districts teaching mostly virtually. The issue has been a lightning rod of debate. One side contending students need to be back in the classroom full time, the other side disputing the health and safety of returning in person. One thing is certain: many students struggled to learn online and districts are playing catch-up.

JACKIE SMITH:
There’s some structures and supports we’re exploring to ensure we really are able to target instruction for students who may have missed instruction during virtual learning.

MARISA WOJCIK:
The outgoing state superintendent said school closures magnified many inequities. This is top of mind for two principals we spoke with.

SARAH OUZOUNIAN:
The biggest thing on my mind for the state of Wisconsin is that we have some of the biggest achievement gaps in the country, so I think that needs to be the top of our focus for anyone in education.

JACKIE SMITH:
Continuing to disrupt practices that may have further marginalized students of color. We are definitely committed to doing that work. Hopefully who’s ever in that role will support us on that journey.

MARISA WOJCIK:
Other issues at the forefront in the race are the private school voucher program, school funding and teachers unions. For “Here & Now,” I’m Marisa Wojcik in Madison.

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