Superintendent Jill Underly talks diversity, censorship and challenges facing Wisconsin schools

By: - January 11, 2024 5:45 am

Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly (center) holds a giant mock check to promote the distribution of funds for Wisconsin school libraries. Underly says lack of resources is the No. 1 challenge facing Wisconsin public schools. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

During a heavy snowstorm Tuesday that caused schools to close all over Wisconsin, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly spoke by telephone with the Wisconsin Examiner about the health of the state’s public education system, student achievement, the growth of school vouchers, political attacks on diversity and her hopes for the coming year. 

Parents bill of rights

As we spoke, Republican legislators were preparing to hold an executive session Thursday on Assembly Bill 510, a “Parents Bill of Rights” that encourages lawsuits by parents who feel that their rights have been violated because they were not informed about medical services offered at school or about the discussion of “controversial subjects”  in class, including gender identity and racism, or because they were not given the authority to determine the names and pronouns used to address their children.

Under the bill, a parent or guardian who successfully asserts a claim “may recover declaratory relief, injunctive relief, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, and up to $10,000 for any other appropriate relief.”

“The reality is that meaningful parental engagement is happening every single day between our teachers and their students’ families and caregivers,” Underly said. The Parents Bill of Rights “is designed to shut down discussion and creates an environment of fear for our educators because it inserts them into a culture war that no one should be fighting in the first place.”

She sees the bill as part of a larger pattern of attacks on public schools and democracy itself.

“You think about the things that the Legislature picks up on,” Underly said. “Let’s attack libraries. Let’s attack the curriculum. Let’s attack teachers, let’s attack school boards because they wanted to wear masks during the virus. … I think it’s really a way to make sure that we instill distrust in our public institutions.”

There is “a lot of misinformation out there,” Underly added, propagated by people and groups insinuating that schools provide inappropriate materials to kids. “That’s by design. Misinformation is designed to stoke outrage.”

Another Republican bill, considered by the Assembly Education Committee last week, would require public schools to comply with written requests from residents in their districts to inspect a textbook, curriculum or instructional material within 14 days.

“That’s really burdensome,” said Underly. “Let me just say right now, if you have a question about curriculum, you can access that. You contact the school, the principal and the teacher will work to get you the information.”

School voucher lawsuit

The message that public schools are “failing” and do not adequately serve Wisconsin families has been promoted for decades by advocates for school privatization, including the Bradley Foundation, which also supported Milwaukee’s first-in-the-nation school voucher program. That program, which started out serving 350 kids, has mushroomed to include more than 52,000 students in the statewide, Racine and Milwaukee programs.

In December, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s private school voucher program. The suit, sponsored by Minocqua Brewing Co. owner Kirk Bangstad, named Underly, in her official capacity, as a defendant. It charged that taxpayer-financed private school vouchers are a huge financial drain, pushing local public school districts into a “death spiral” and that they violate the state constitution’s promise to provide high-quality public schools for every child. 

Asked to comment on the lawsuit, Underly said she couldn’t speak to the constitutionality of school vouchers. But, she added,  “I believe that we cannot afford two school systems.”

“We need to robustly fund the system that serves all kids,” she said, “and that’s our public schools.”

(Late last year Underly applauded another recent Supreme Court lawsuit, filed by teachers and other public employees challenging Act 10, the 2011 law that took away most collective bargaining rights from most public employees: “Returning collective bargaining rights to public sector employees will strengthen our educator workforce, and strengthening our educator workforce will improve our children’s education and create a stronger future for our state,” she said in a statement.)

Even though the voucher lawsuit was kicked back down to lower court, Underly said it could still help raise awareness  that, unlike public schools, which are open to every child, Wisconsin’s school choice programs “are allowing these schools that accept vouchers to discriminate against students, students with disabilities, students who are LGBTQ+.”

Worrying about LGBTQ kids

Underly said she worries “all the time” about the well-being of LGBTQ kids in Wisconsin. She cited Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey data showing that “these kids who struggle to feel included or to be seen, you know, their mental health struggles are higher.”

“At the heart of all this I think what I would like people to realize, and I think many people do, [is that] at the center of all of this is a child.” 

“And when we attack them,” she added, “when we tell them, you know, their identity doesn’t matter or we have to take down symbols that show that they’re included, that’s hurting them. … It’s saying that you don’t belong here or you’re not wanted. … I just want to tell people, these are kids. These are human beings. And they deserve love and empathy.”

Missing the Regents’ vote to cut back DEI

Along with recent efforts to ban books and remove LGBTQ Pride flags, Wisconsin schools have been at the center of a battle over diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. Underly, who serves on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, was absent for the vote in which the Regents reversed themselves and agreed to legislative Republicans’ demands that they eliminate DEI positions in exchange for promised funding for faculty raises and capital improvements.

Underly was out of the country, traveling with her elderly mother in Austria, on a vacation she said she’d had to reschedule several times, when the Regents voted 9-8 to reject the deal limiting diversity positions on Saturday, Dec. 9. She was still out of the country the following Wednesday, Dec 13, when the Regents reversed their decision in a second vote. 

Between votes, Underly issued a statement asking that the second vote be postponed so she could attend. She had intermittent internet access, she explained, and wouldn’t be available at the meeting time. But the Regents went ahead without her.

“Part of my frustration with that is that my position on diversity, equity and inclusion is very clear,” Underly said. “I think people knew how I was going to vote. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it …  I wasn’t part of any of the discussions.”

Like Gov. Tony Evers, Underly doesn’t believe there should have been any further negotiations between the Regents and the Legislature over funds that were already approved as part of the state budget.

Now, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos pledges to eliminate every trace of DEI throughout the state, Underly said, “It’s definitely that slippery slope argument. You give in on one thing, and they certainly will want to take more.”

Still, she added, “these programs aren’t going to go away. … They exist to make sure that every citizen in the state of Wisconsin has access to higher education. That includes veterans. That includes kids from rural Wisconsin who want to study to become doctors. It includes women. It includes kids who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Will UW hold onto minority scholarship programs and other targets of Republicans in the Legislature, and somehow meet its agreement to eliminate the language of DEI without actually getting rid of programs that promote diversity?

“I don’t know,” Underly said. “I guess in my role as Regent what I do look forward to is having these conversations and in many ways protecting these positions [including] the scholarships and [other] components.”

What about voucher schools that serve underserved kids?

On the flip side, what does Underly make of the argument made by school choice advocates like Madison’s One City independent charter school founder Kaleem Caire, that Wisconsin’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap between Black and white students is unacceptable and the lack of diversity among teaching staff contributes to a lousy environment in the local public school district for Black kids? 

“I’m not going to say that his heart’s not in the right place,” said Underly. “We want all kids to be successful, and he is in a community and he interacts with children of color and their families all the time.”

Still, “I don’t think the answer is pulling kids out of public schools and funding private schools,” Underly said. “I would argue the opposite and say we need to put the resources in the public schools so that all kids can be successful.” 

Working on teacher training, curriculum, adjusting the length of the school day or the school year are all “ways we could address the achievement gap, and the opportunity gaps that we see, especially among children of color,” she said.

“This is really where we get at the root of what equity is,” Underly added, “getting the schools what they need, so that their kids can be successful, and that’s not going to be the same thing in every school or in every community.”

Poverty and student success

Among the biggest equity issues public schools must address, Underly said, is poverty. 

Children facing housing insecurity and hunger are “not going to score as well on a standardized test,” she said.

“What public schools have done is they’ve tried to level that playing field. They have provided food for kids, they provide stability, whether it’s for in-school or after-school programs, they provide the art and the music and these enrichment classes that kids in poverty perhaps can’t afford to get outside of school.”

The whole purpose of public schools is to create a more equitable society by providing opportunity to kids whose families live in poverty. “That’s a fundamental value of democracy,” said Underly. “That’s inclusion — making sure that not just the wealthy have access to these things.”

Fundamentally, Underly agrees with the plaintiffs in the anti-voucher lawsuit that the private school voucher movement undermines democracy. “Public schools are among the most democratic institutions that you can think of because they accept everybody, regardless of their language, their socioeconomic status, their gender, who their parents are, their immigrant status. Because that’s what inclusion is. And when you have these outside groups attack public schools, they’re really attacking that democratic institution.”

School report cards

The latest round of school report cards released by DPI showed students test scores continuing to improve after the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

None of Wisconsin’s school districts is rated as “failing” in the latest assessments and 94% of districts meet or exceed  expectations. But critics say DPI is setting the bar too low. Will Flanders of Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty told Wisconsin Public Radio: “While DPI may tout there has been an increase across the board, we still have districts like Milwaukee where proficiency rates are less than 20% and somehow that seems to be meeting expectations.”

Public school student proficiency rates for 2022-23 were better than in 2020-21 and 2021-22. But they still seem low:  38.9% were proficient in English language arts and 37.4% were proficient in math. Students participating in the state’s Private School Choice Programs, however, had even lower proficiency rates of 22.1% in English language arts and 17.9% in math in 2022-23.

Student assessment scores are only one factor in determining district report card scores, a spokesperson for DPI explains. For districts with high percentages of low-income students, growth is weighted more significantly than achievement — a requirement of state law

“Our public education system should be about getting every kid what they need – in the way they need it – in order to achieve success,” Underly said.

In announcing the latest assessment data, DPI pointed to a 2021 study by the U.S. Department of Education that found Wisconsin’s performance standards in reading and math were among the highest in the nation, corresponding to higher levels of proficiency as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Big financial challenges for public schools

Still, schools face big challenges, particularly those with large numbers of low-income and special education students and English language learners. The biggest challenge, Underly said, is revenue.

After more than a decade of school funding that has not kept pace with inflation, and a less than 30% state reimbursement for special education — a mandatory cost that is eating up school districts’ budgets, driving deep cuts in other programs, public school advocates expressed deep disappointment with the latest state budget. 

Gov. Evers had adopted DPI’s proposals in his own budget, including a big increase in the state reimbursement for special education from less than 30% to 60%, lifting local revenue limits and providing a total funding increase of $2.6 billion. The Legislature stripped that down to $1 billion, and left 40% of school districts with less funding this year than they had under the previous, zero-increase budget.

Remaining hopeful part of the job

Despite the existential challenges facing Wisconsin public schools, including the elimination, next year, of the cap on enrollment for voucher schools, Underly said she has a lot of hope for 2024. 

“When we talk to kids, especially the ones that remember COVID — middle school, high school kids — they have a lot of hope for the future.”

She is already working on her next budget proposal, which will include teacher recruitment, increasing funding for mental health and, once again, an increase in the state’s special education reimbursement, as well as programs including free meals that address poverty. 

“We need to get kids what they need, so that they can be successful and making sure that they’re not hungry is really critical for them to be able to focus and concentrate,” she said.

“I think it’s important that we continue this hopeful outlook because that’s what our schools need,” Underly added. “Our schools don’t need to be attacked. Our students don’t need to be attacked. So just supporting our schools, supporting our students and supporting that hope is part of supporting their education.”

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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.

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