Sparks fly between Deborah Kerr and Jill Underly at online forum

By: - March 15, 2021 6:35 am
Classroom of desks row after row that are all empty

MChe Lee | Unsplash

The state superintendent candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN) was not a dull affair. 

Jill Underly had technical difficulties that served to illustrate one of her campaign priorities. As a candidate she has emphasized improving rural broadband access. During the March 11 forum, her internet connection was so horrible (she lives on a farm in rural southwestern Wisconsin) she had to forgo video to conserve bandwidth.

LWV WPEN debate online

Deb Kerr, the other candidate in the April 6 statewide election to select a new head for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), had better internet, but seemed to have trouble connecting with Tony Chambers, the event’s moderator, and some of the questions at the Zoom event. She seemed especially irked by queries linking her to voucher and pro-privatization donors. She objected to a question that used the phrase “charter czar,” referring  to the director of the DPI’s Office of Educational Opportunity, who has power to approve educational charters.

In the Feb. 16 primary, Underly, the Pecatonica Area School District superintendent, received 27% of the vote, and Kerr, a retired Brown Deer superintendent, received 26%.

Anyone having trouble deciding between Kerr and Underly at this point in the campaign need only view the video of the hour-and-a-half long debate where the differences between the two were on display. Where the seven-person primary was a policy wonkish celebration of the candidates’ commitment to equity, now the two remaining candidates are locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of distracted Wisconsin voters — and their positions fall along predictable lines.


Breaking up DPI

The first issue to turn up the heat was a question regarding Kerr’s March 10 announcement that she wants to “decentralize” DPI to “disperse the bloated bureaucracy” throughout the state so it isn’t “bogged down by Madison dysfunction.” 

“We need to have a regional approach so that we can better serve all the kids and tackle these achievement gaps and tackle the challenges that we have with funding and making sure that we’re teaching kids how to read,” Kerr said at the forum. “And right now only the people who live in Madison get to work in Madison. I don’t think that fairly represents the entire state. So why should someone have to move to Madison to work in the DPI, to work towards these worthy goals of creating a world-class education system?”

Underly dismissed Kerr’s idea as  an expensive distraction: “This decentralization really is a solution in search of a problem,” said Underly, noting that even though DPI headquarters are in Madison, there are offices throughout the state. “I really don’t feel that there is a problem with how DPI is run, and in particular, that plan costs a lot of money. And I think the last thing that kids need when they return to school this fall is a discombobulated DPI. We don’t need more chaos as we navigate this pandemic.”

Following the money

Although both candidates in the officially nonpartisan race say they are Democrats, Kerr appears to be courting conservative voters, and she has received donations from Friends of Alberta Darling. Darling (R-River Hills), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, has advanced the agenda of private school vouchers in the Legislature. Kerr received $2,000 from George and Susan Mitchell, longtime voucher advocates and former leaders of School Choice Wisconsin. Notably, she also received a $15,000 donation from Pennsylvania ultra-conservative Arthur Dantchik, who has donated $147,000 to Wisconsin Republicans, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Underly came into the primary with a big boost of an endorsement and an $18,000 contribution from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Educational Association Council (WEAC). Her list of endorsements now includes most of the former primary candidates.


Kerr has been criticized for accepting donations from donors who support expansion of the state’s charter schools and voucher program. Kerr defended her position.“The state superintendent is in charge of all children in the state of Wisconsin, and that does include school choice — private schools and vouchers — but that doesn’t mean they can’t be accountable,” she said.

“Vouchers are here to stay,” Kerr continued. “And so we need to stop fighting about this issue and figure out what we can do to elevate all kids.”

Underly shot back: “We do have winners and losers, specifically in our public school system. When you look at the funding formulas, the better-resourced schools are going to have more student achievement because it’s translated directly to opportunities. And then the losers are the high-poverty schools.” In Milwaukee, she added, the voucher system is a drain on the public schools. “ We need to stop voucher expansion, first of all. And then we also need to put money back into our public schools so that we no longer will have losers in the school funding system.” 

Chambers, who is director of Equity, Inclusion, and Innovation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison put a question to the candidates to clarify their positions on vouchers and independent, non-district-authorized charter schools: “Do you support or oppose private school voucher programs in the state of Wisconsin?”

Deborah Kerr | LWV WPEN debate online
Deborah Kerr | LWV WPEN debate online

Kerr’s reply was charged: “Yes. I support it because it is the law. And I believe that this was a very misleading question,” she continued. “And so I will say that it was difficult for me to answer it. I’m glad we’re going to set the record straight tonight, because I do support these children in these schools because they were created because they didn’t have a choice in their neighborhood public schools. I want to change that. I want all parents to have the choice of where to send their kids to school. And what I am worried about most is that our public schools are at a crisis right now today because some of our children are not in school face-to-face instruction full time. And so some of our parents have chosen to go to . . . private or voucher schools because their schools are not in face-to-face instruction.”

The matter is settled in Wisconsin, Kerr argued. “We’ve got to stop fighting amongst ourselves. This is a 40-year-old battle to me. This is in the rear-view mirror. We need to move forward.” (Wisconsin’s — and the nation’s — first modern private school choice program was founded in Milwaukee in 1990, 31 years ago.)

Jill Underly | LWV WPEN debate online
Jill Underly | LWV WPEN debate online

Kerr also defended state Republicans’ decision to tie federal funding to in-person instruction.

Underly disagreed, and defended local decision makers and educators for their choices during the pandemic. “There are reasons why some of our schools could not open their buildings, but it doesn’t mean that school hadn’t been in session,” Underly said. “Our teachers have been working their butts off trying to make sure that kids are receiving education through various modes, whether it’s face to face, virtual or a blended learning model.”

The Pecatonica superintendent went to detail the funding crisis in Wisconsin’s schools and the ways that vouchers and charters contribute to inequities. “I want to make sure that our public funding stays in our public schools,” she said. “As the only candidate running a school district right now during the pandemic, I see firsthand how hard hit our public schools are as well as how our kids are being hit by these funding shortfalls. We’ve been starving for money the past 10 years. We’ve lost over $4 billion in our public schools.”

Underly stated she would advocate for a freeze on charters and vouchers in the state and push for equitable systems of accountability. “We also need to hold the independent charter schools accountable,” said Underly. “They don’t have locally elected school boards, yet they’re taking public funds. They’re taking resources out of our, our highest-poverty school districts like Milwaukee Public Schools. They’re also taking the best and brightest kids out of those communities and further segregating our schools. In the long term, we can not afford two public school systems.”


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Catherine Capellaro
Catherine Capellaro

Catherine Capellaro is a freelance writer and the arts and culture editor for Isthmus in Madison, Wisconsin. She is also the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools, a former anchor and reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT-89.9 FM and an accomplished playwright and musician.