Wisconsin school chief candidates clash on unions, vouchers

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The candidates for Wisconsin superintendent of schools clashed Thursday over reopening schools for in-person teaching, Act 10 and teacher unions and the private school voucher program.

Former Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr and Pecatonica Superintendent Jill Underly meet April 6 in the race to become superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction. The race is officially nonpartisan, but conservatives have largely lined up behind Kerr while Underly has the backing of Democrats.

Underly touted her endorsement from the statewide teachers’ union during a virtual candidate forum hosted by the Greater Milwaukee Committee. She also criticized the Act 10 law passed a decade ago that effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers and cut their pay.

Underly said Act 10 “was a big hit to the teaching profession” and discouraged many people from entering the field. She criticized Kerr for praising the law in 2013, when she called it a “gift that keeps on giving for a while.”

Kerr said she used the law, which forced teachers to pay more for retirement and pension benefit, to save money at Brown Deer which ultimately meant saving teacher positions. She noted her endorsement from Brown Deer teachers, while pushing back against Underly’s backing from the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the statewide teachers union that led the fight against Act 10.

“When I did not get the endorsement of the teacher union, it was not a deal breaker for me because I have always worked well with everyone,” Kerr said. “I am beholden to kids, families and teachers, in that order. I am not beholden to the teacher’s union only.”

Kerr, who said she reveres and honors teachers, is endorsed by former Gov. Scott Walker, who signed Act 10 into law. Kerr calls herself a “pragmatic Democrat” who voted for President Joe Biden.

Underly formerly worked for the state education department under then-secretary Tony Evers, who is now governor, opposed Act 10 and supported the attempt to recall Walker from office. Underly called Evers her “favorite boss.”

Kerr emphasized the need for schools to reopen for in-person teaching, an issue that Republicans in the Legislature have also been pushing, saying she would take a “hands on” approach to make that happen.

“We need to get all of our kids back in school,” she said. “The parents are not only mystified that some of our larger public schools aren’t open, they are angry.”

The state’s two largest school districts, Milwaukee and Madison, have yet to return to in-person teaching. Madison is slated to begin phasing in a return for students on Monday, starting with kindergartners. Other large urban districts have hybrid teaching in place.

Underly said everyone wants schools open, but the larger districts face challenges that smaller ones do not, while noting the importance of vaccinating teachers.

One of the biggest contrasts between Kerr and Underly is the private school voucher program, which has been a litmus test in the state superintendent race for decades.

Underly wants to freeze enrollment in the programs, which divert taxpayer dollars to allow public school students to attend private schools. Kerr supports the programs and said she wants to bring all parties together to discuss a path forward.

“This has been an issue that’s divided us the past 40 years,” Kerr said. “That’s got to stop. ... I would work with people on both sides of the aisle to say what is fair, what is equitable, what are we going to do to make sure we serve all kids in Wisconsin.”

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.

The state superintendent oversees 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.