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Capital City Sunday: State superintendent candidates split on in-person learning, school choice

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MADISON (WKOW) -- The candidates for state superintendent made the final arguments this past week ahead of Tuesday's election. The winner will inherit the immediate challenge of helping thousands of students catch up after having parts of two school years disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the race is meant to be nonpartisan, one look at the high-profile endorsements and the campaign finance reports make it clear: Jill Underly the preferred by progressives while conservatives favor Deborah Kerr.

Underly, the superintendent in Pecatonica, has amassed a huge fundraising advantage; that's largely due to the $600,000 she's taken in from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Underly said she was committed to working with people of all political persuasions, including the Republicans who control the state legislature.

"I am saddened that supporting our public schools, which serve 860,000 kids throughout Wisconsin, in all areas, has become partisan," Underly said. "I feel the progressives have lined up behind me because I have a 20-year-plus record of providing for our kids in public schools."

Kerr, who retired last year from the superintendent role in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer, said she understood why her stance on school choice would drive conservatives, including former Governor Scott Walker, to line up to support her campaign.

"I do believe the conservatives are aligned with me because I support school choice," Kerr said. "I believe all children should have a high-quality education in Wisconsin."

The current school year has largely been defined by the question of when students should return to in-person learning and to what extent. In the state's largest two cities, Milwaukee and Madison, students either still haven't gone back into the classroom or only recently resumed in-person instruction, respectively.

Underly acknowledged the delay relative to other districts could put some of those kids at a disadvantage.

"I do feel it's a valid concern," Underly said. "There's a lot of inequity between our school districts and we see it all the time between our urban and rural and suburban school districts."

Kerr took more of a hardline approach, saying students across the state should all be back in school five days a week.

"The best therapy is getting our kids back to school so we can start the healing process," Kerr said. "Because if we don't, we are gonna be in this recovery process and plan for many years."

As far as how they'd help students catch up once the pandemic ends, both Underly and Kerr suggested robust summer learning programs. Underly said she supports proposals to move up the start date of the 2021-22 school year too.

"I'm going to make sure we get the resources to the schools and kids that need it the most so they can catch up," Underly said.

Kerr said she would want to explore partnerships with area churches and organizations like the YMCA to incorporate a strong social aspect of the summer curriculum.

"We need to make sure we're providing lots of opportunities for our kids, not only to catch up, but to be kids - to play outside, to work with their peers," Kerr said.

School Choice Split

Despite their areas of relative agreement on post-pandemic education, perhaps their most divergent split is on one of the most contentious issues in education policy: public funding for private schools.

Underly has said she opposes giving any additional funding the private school voucher program.

Private schools are fine. They have an important role to play in the fabric of our education system in Wisconsin," Underly said. "It's just that when we take that money out of our public schools, it's resources we need to have in our public schools so that all kids have access to a high-quality public education."

Kerr acknowledged public school have a greater burden because, unlike private schools, they cannot turn away students with severe behavioral issues or struggle to have good attendance due to family transiency.

She said despite dealing with those obstacles first-hand in Brown Deer, she still supports giving more money to the voucher program.

"I experienced those same kind of things where we would get students after the school year started," Kerr said. "We would joyfully serve them but we need to have a better process moving forward."

During a Milwaukee Press Club/WisPolitics.com forum this week, Kerr and Underly clashed on the question of whether transgender girls should be allowed to play on girls athletic teams.

Underly said she supporting transgender participation in gendered sports while Kerr said she opposed it.

The two candidates also traded barbs over the issue of ethical violations. Each candidate accused the other of using district email unethically; a Wisconsin State Journal report found Kerr had used district email to work on a consulting business she was starting on district time.

Kerr admitted the mistake and added she's learned from it and will drop any plans for her own business, at least in the near term, should she win the election.

"I will not be running my consulting business if I'm being the state superintendent," Kerr said. "I wanted to model for my kids what entrepreneurship looks like and that's what I did because I wasn't sure I was going to run in this race until September."

Underly said her emails on the district's system included language that made it clear she did not want to engage in campaign activity on the school account.

As for whether she would work productively with legislative Republicans after being so heavily funded by the state's Democratic party, Underly said she would rely on past relationships to keep the lines open between DPI and legislative leadership.

"I think they support me too, I really do. I have really good relationships with Republican legislators and I think I have a history of advocacy in the state of Wisconsin," Underly said. "I have a history of showing up, testifying at budget hearings and Assembly education hearings so they know me."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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