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Underly, Kerr advance in state superintendent race

February 17, 2021 GMT

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A candidate endorsed by the state teachers union and one with broad support from conservatives who says she is a Democrat advanced in Tuesday’s primary and will square off in April in the race to become Wisconsin’s top education official.

Jill Underly, the Pecatonica Area School District superintendent who won the teachers’ endorsement, and Deborah Kerr, the former superintendent in Brown Deer who was the only candidate with widespread conservative support, were the top two-vote getters in a crowded field of seven candidates, based on unofficial results.

They split more than 54% of all votes cast and will face each other in the April 6 election in the officially nonpartisan race to be secretary of the Department of Public Instruction.

Turnout was on track to be low for the race, in keeping with spring primaries and expectations of elections officials. The race for state superintendent was the only statewide contest on the ballot. There were more than 100 other primaries for local races across the state, including vacancies for open seats in the state Senate and Assembly.

Republican state Rep. John Jagler, of Watertown, won the three-person Republican primary for the state Senate district vacated by Scott Fitzgerald when he was elected to Congress. Jagler will face Democrat Melissa Winker in April.

There was also a five-way Republican primary for the 89th Assembly District, which includes the city of Marinette. Elijah Behnke, who owns a cleaning business and is a former youth pastor, advanced to face Democrat Karl Jaeger, who ran for the seat in 2020 and lost. That seat was open after John Nygren resigned from the Legislature.

The winner in the state superintendent’s race will replace Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who took over as state superintendent in 2019 but declined to seek a full term. She held the position after Tony Evers left the post when he was elected governor. Evers had been state superintendent since 2009.

The job of state superintendent is to oversee education policy in Wisconsin. That includes setting priorities and a two-year budget request, managing a variety of education programs statewide, including the voucher and school choice programs, as well as dispersing grant funding to schools and districts.

The superintendent’s powers are limited and must implement the laws as passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Evers.

How candidates feel about taxpayer funded school choice programs, which Republicans have expanded the past decade, often serves as a litmus test with voters. The winner this year will take over in the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, with high pressure on schools to remain safe as students go to classes in person.

Kerr is a supporter of the private school voucher system but cites her backing from some Democrats as evidence she is running a bipartisan campaign. Kerr said she is a Democrat who voted for Joe Biden, but she’s also taken big money from Republicans and backers of the school choice program.

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Underly was the most vocally anti-voucher school candidate, opposes expansion of the program. She is a former assistant director at the state education department and is endorsed by the Wisconsin Education Association Council and more than a dozen current and former Democratic state lawmakers.

“I’m all about kids,” Underly said in explaining why she thought she advanced in the primary. “I’m all about public schools and I think that’s what resonates with voters.”

The other candidates ousted in Tuesday’s primary were:

— Sheila Briggs, an assistant state superintendent, has been at the state education department since 2011. Briggs was supported by former Democratic state lawmakers Tim Cullen and Stephen Smith.

— Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, also a former worker at the state education department, who was vying to become the first African American person elected as state superintendent. She is a voucher supporter but also previously worked for Evers’ administration.

— Troy Gunderson, the former West Salem superintendent, had a 35-year career in public education and has been endorsed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind.

— Steve Krull, a principal in the Milwaukee Public Schools, has worked in the district for 12 years.

— Joe Fenrick, a Fond du Lac High School science teacher for 15 years, is a Fond du Lac County supervisor.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP