The two candidates for state superintendent continued to swipe at each other from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in a Milwaukee Press Club forum Thursday, this time over controversial bills that would prohibit transgender girls from participating in youth sports.
In a nominally nonpartisan race, Deborah Kerr, former superintendent of Brown Deer Schools, is supported by state Republicans and Jill Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica School District, has the support of state Democrats.
Both candidates say they’re Democrats, but Kerr has been endorsed by prominent Wisconsin Republicans, including former Gov. Scott Walker. She’s also received donations from high-profile conservative donors, including Diane Hendricks — a Beloit billionaire who has been at the forefront of the charter school movement in Wisconsin.
Underly has received the institutional support of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and the state’s teachers unions. She’s also received the endorsement of every Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation.
With just days before Election Day, Underly’s Democratic backing has powered her to an overwhelming fundraising advantage. In the last reporting period Underly brought in $1.1 million compared to Kerr’s $71,466.
Last month, Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) introduced two bills that would prevent trans girls and women in Wisconsin from participating in youth, high school or collegiate sports in divisions that match their gender identity.
The two superintendent candidates were asked what they thought about Dittrich’s bills, the rise of legislation targeting trans kids across the country and how, if elected, they’d support LGBTQ children in Wisconsin schools.
Kerr said she supported trans kids identifying by whatever gender they prefer but that as a “girl of Title IX,” — the federal law that allowed a massive expansion of girls’ and women’s sports — she wanted to keep trans girls from playing in girls’ youth sports.
“I think it’s important that we recognize who our children are and what we can do to best support them as they navigate life,” Kerr said. “I participated in sports all my life and I still participate in sports today. I was a collegiate athlete at Valparaiso University, I played basketball and field hockey, and I want to play against other biological women and girls. I don’t think it’s fair to have competition that does otherwise.”
Underly said trans kids need to be supported as much as possible, including giving them access to school-sponsored activities that match their gender identity. She began by saying Kerr’s stance was transphobic.
“I think that that’s rather transphobic, honestly,” Underly said. “Kids need to feel safe in their schools, they need to feel seen and heard and we need to enforce anti-bullying and anti-harassment in our schools, and in our society and, really that statement was rather transphobic. We need to make sure that all our LGBTQ-plus students are safe, that they are respected, that they have representation in their schools, so that they have staff who see and hear them.”
When asked to clarify her position, Kerr said she doesn’t think it has anything to do with transphobia and instead it’s about alleviating the concerns of parents.
“I participate in sports and I know that many parents are concerned about this kind of thinking,” she said. “They want their girls participating against other girls and it has nothing to do with transphobia. In Brown Deer we’ve joyfully accepted all kids where they were, they went to any bathroom they wanted to, there was never these issues like this and so we gave kids opportunities that would help them excel as people and as good citizens.”
Last month, as bills preventing trans girls from participating in sports began to spring up in state legislatures across the country, the Associated Press asked the bills’ sponsors if they could cite any examples of trans girls playing sports that have caused a problem in their state. In almost every case, the two dozen lawmakers could not cite a single instance of a problem arising involving a transgender athlete in their districts.