State superintendent calls out Republicans’ war on schools in fiery speech

Austerity, incivility are hurting kids

September 24, 2021 7:00 am
State Superintendent Jill Underly delivers her first State of Education address in the Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

State Superintendent Jill Underly delivers her first State of Education address in the Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

In her first annual State of Education address, Wisconsin’s new state schools superintendent Jill Underly did not hold back. “We’re now failing a generation of kids,” Underly declared. “And we’re failing our state by putting Wisconsin’s economic future at risk.”

Standing in front of the bust of Fighting Bob La Follette in the Capitol rotunda, after a student sang the national anthem and the requisite acknowledgements of various educators and public officials were dispensed with, Underly launched into a speech that sounded more like a call to arms than the usual anodyne annual report from the state department of ed.

Drawing on Wisconsin’s progressive history and praising the state for being a leader in education, Underly acknowledged standing on “the shoulders of those who came before us,” then slammed Republican legislative leaders for their “shortsightedness” in passing a budget that declined to spend part of a historic surplus on schools. 

“Not long ago, Wisconsin’s budget invested in our public schools,” Underly noted. “We saw the impact of this on the kids who graduated from our schools before 2010.” But over the last decade, the state has failed to make up for budget cuts made during the Great Recession. As a result, “in 2020, we graduated and an entire generation of kids who have known nothing but austerity in our school funding — who have known years of divestment in their future.”

“This, folks,” she declared, “is the state of education in Wisconsin. 

Calling on Wisconsinites to “stand up to those who want to use our schools to distract and divide our communities.” Underly referred to the rash of cases of harassment and intimidation of school board members throughout the state, spurred by conservative groups and Republican donors who have stirred up anger over school mask policies, school funding and anti-racism curriculum.

“I urge us to keep our focus on what unites us instead of getting caught up in division,” Underly said. “Our kids are doing just that by focusing on their shared desire to be with their friends, and to learn and to protect each other. And it’s time for the adults to step up, too.”

Describing public schools and libraries as “the common thread that binds us together,” Underly noted that, “the fabric is fraying.” The vitriol in public attacks on teachers and school officials is hurting kids, she added. 

The anger unleashed in the Trump era, fanned by Republicans at both the national and state level in order to motivate the former president’s voters, is now focused on a soft target — local school boards. Across Wisconsin, they  have endured mini versions of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In Kenosha, a crowd jammed a meeting and forced a vote to drastically cut school board members’ salaries, while making it mandatory that they attend meetings in person. In Eau Claire, a school board meeting was cancelled after some participants refused to wear masks. Recall efforts targeting school board members for voting to sustain mask requirements and online learning during the pandemic have proliferated across the state. And school board members in different districts across the state quit this fall saying they and their families were threatened by angry members of the public.

Against this backdrop, Underly wryly noted a Republican legislative proposal for a civics requirement in Wisconsin schools.

“If you want a stronger civics curriculum, you’ll find no resistance from me,” she said. “Maybe it would end up resulting in a future Legislature that understands the complex legal and societal issues our families and communities face.” Maybe it would even teach the Legislature, which has been busy running over local control with a series of curriculum mandates, the separate roles of state and local governments. “Most of all,” Underly added, “maybe it will encourage us to be better citizens and hold our legislators accountable and set a strong example for our kids of what it means to be civically engaged, but also civilly engaged.” 

Underly gave her endorsement to the call for civility issued by John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“Our kids matter most, our public schools matter most,” Underly said. “They are the thread that binds our communities together, and we should be supporting each other instead of tearing down those who dare to provide leadership during a crisis.”


Indeed, by targeting teachers, schools, and school board members, conservative “freedom fighters” have ripped the mask off Republican politics in more ways than one, exposing the sheer nihilism of Trumpism, division and destruction. What’s at stake, as Underly ably put it in her address, is our shared sense of community, decency, and civilization itself.

“For democracy and civility to thrive, we need our public schools,” she declared, bringing it all together. Our public schools and libraries are a precious resource, both for the role they play in unifying and lifting up communities, nurturing our future, and giving us a sense of shared purpose, pride, and values.  All of that is currently under attack.

In a video statement released shortly after Underly concluded her speech, Gov. Tony Evers, a former state schools superintendent himself, congratulated Underly and reinforced her message that “our schools are the heart of our community.”

Speaker Robin Vos, not surprisingly, pushed back on her strong criticism of his leadership with his own statement. “The Democrats’ singular focus to push more money into schools isn’t a winning strategy for our kids,” Vos declared sourly. “We need to look at improving how they are being taught and why so many students are struggling with the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic.” He called for more assessments and “allowing parents to be part of the conversation.” 

By conversation, Vos presumably means this week’s hearing featuring national conservative activists deriding so-called critical race theory, or the mobs that have been threatening school board members. 

“Unfortunately, politics is too much a part of the conversation around schools,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Threats to school board members, who are our neighbors, who have families of their own, who thought that they were serving their communities and signing up to help our kids, are way beyond the line,” she adds.

No wonder several of those school board members resigned when it all got to be too much. But, says, DuBois Bourenane, bullying has driven some people to quit, “others have become even more deeply committed to doing what’s best for our students and our communities, and are using this moment to shake awake those who have too long been asleep to a decades-old assault our public schools.”

One of those people seizing the moment is Jill Underly. 

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.