'Our Children Are Not Partisan': An Interview With State Superintendent Candidate Deborah Kerr
Two candidates are in the running for Wisconsin’s top education job: Superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction.
The candidates are former Brown Deer superintendent Deborah Kerr and Pecatonica Superintendent Jill Underly. Kerr has the backing of some prominent conservatives and Underly has received endorsements from liberal groups, including the state teachers’ union.
The state superintendent crafts an education spending proposal every two years and provides guidance and support to publicly-funded schools.
Whoever wins the April 6 election will take over in July for Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who was appointed by former state superintendent, now Gov. Tony Evers. Stanford Taylor is not seeking election.
WUWM’s Emily Files interviewed both candidates on March 10.
Below is a condensed version of the interview with Deborah Kerr.
WUWM: As state superintendent, what would you do to help schools and students deal with the consequences of the pandemic?
Kerr: First of all, our public schools are at a crisis if we don't get back to face-to-face instruction five days a week. I'm so worried that we lost a lot of our children. Across the state, we have a 3% reduction of student enrollment. And we can't find these kids, especially our younger four- and five-year-olds. And I'm so worried. These are the things that keep me up at night, that our kids are falling further and further behind.
So, my plan calls with a statewide re-entry plan five days a week getting kids back to school, so that we can deal with their social-emotional issues, their mental health issues, and also the trauma that's been created from this pandemic.
My concern is that we've got a lot of schools that are open in Wisconsin right now. Unfortunately, those are almost all of our white children that are in face-to-face school. And when I look at the minority, or the Black and brown kids attending our five largest districts across the state, that's Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha. All these kids are in virtual learning. And the research is showing our kids are more than one year behind.
And so our most vulnerable and marginalized students are not in school. And so we're gonna have to do a full-court press approach to catch up all of our kids and meet all of their mental health, social-emotional learning and trauma needs.
Editor's note: As of March 16, Green Bay, Madison, Racine and Kenosha had either already returned some students for in-person instruction or had a plan in place. Milwaukee is the only district without a definite in-person return plan.
WUWM: So would you as state superintendent be advocating for a statewide mandate for five days in-person learning for all districts? How would you go about getting all students back in classrooms?
Kerr: Well, the state superintendent cannot mandate that schools necessarily go back to face-to-face instruction. But I think the metrics are proving that we can.
I want to make sure that every school district has all the support they need. … I also know that parents are going to want choices moving forward. And so if there's anything we've learned from the pandemic, is that our parents want to have a choice of whether to send their kids to school or not, and where to send their kids to school. And so we need to be mindful of all that, and all the metrics that we're learning about right now today show that we can re-enter and start school safely again.
WUWM: So would you essentially be just publicly advocating for that? I mean, you said DPI is limited in what it can mandate for schools. But are there any specific actions you would take? Or would it be more of a just a strong advocate for schools to open in person?
Kerr: Well, first of all, our DPI needs to become more of a customer service, resource center and agency, making sure that all the needs of its clients are served well.
And so if I could, I think I can mandate, but I'm not sure so I have to check on that. But I would be leveraging federal funds. So we know that we've had millions and now billions of dollars released to the state of Wisconsin to help our kids mitigate the risk and get back into school.
And so I believe that all of our superintendents need more guidance and support on how to spend this money. These are one-time expenses, so we want to make sure they're invested in just the right places to get the biggest return on our investment.
WUWM: What are your thoughts on the push by Republican legislators to financially reward schools that have been open in person during the pandemic?
Kerr: Well, I think it's got a lot of merit because there's been some concern that those staff members who have not been in person face-to-face are possibly not working to their fullest potential. Again, I don't have any data on that. However, I believe that all kids need to be back face-to-face.
WUWM: Gov. Evers has proposed a $1.6 billion education spending increase in the biennial budget. What parts of that budget do you think are most important to advocate for, as it goes through the legislature? And as a whole, do you support his budget proposal?
Kerr: Well, first of all, I think the governor has done a laudable job in putting the resources in just the right places, especially for our most vulnerable and marginalized students.
I support the special education reimbursement that he's asking for, but I would hope that we could plan and reimburse higher levels of reimbursements for our children with special needs — up to 90% reimbursement. That's a win-win for everybody. If you reimburse special education at a higher level that means you can free up other money from the regular education budget to do other things that you might need in your district.
I also love the career and technical education emphasis on the trades.
The other things that I'm not sure are going to be well-received relate to the ending of collective bargaining from Act 10. Let's be realistic here. We have got a Republican government. And I don't think there's going to be any changes to that.
I would also like to see more emphasis on closing the achievement gap, and especially in the area of reading for our most vulnerable students. So that's the kinds of things that I would work with the governor moving forward with.
WUWM: OK, so you mentioned the achievement gap. Black students in Wisconsin face some of the largest achievement or opportunity gaps in the nation. What specifically would you do as a state superintendent to tackle that issue?
Kerr: Well, first of all, Wisconsin has been on the list of having the worst achievement gap between Black and white students for the last 10 years across the country. That is reprehensible and just so unacceptable.
So what I would do is we would focus on literacy. Literacy is the gateway to all future education and success. We have 400 different ways of teaching reading in the state of Wisconsin. We need to focus on the science of reading, getting back to the basics on how kids learn to read using phonemic awareness and phonics and decoding words. This will get us better results.
WUWM: Turning to rural school districts, the Palmyra Eagle School District was on the verge of dissolution last year. It's been losing students through the Open Enrollment program to neighboring districts. And this could be a problem for other rural districts going forward. Do you think dissolution is an appropriate solution for rural districts with shrinking enrollment?
Kerr: Absolutely not. That is a community decision. And so one of the successful options that I think all school districts should consider if they're in that financial situation is consolidation.
We realize that our schools are the centerpiece of our community. So we would not want to make that decision unless it was absolutely necessary. But that would require a lot of input from the community. And I think that it's important to have a voice from the community members on how to support their schools.
WUWM: As state superintendent, would you propose changes to school choice programs, including the Open Enrollment program, parental choice programs or charter schools?
Kerr: First of all, the state superintendent is responsible for serving all the children in our state of Wisconsin — all sectors. That means private, public, charter school, choice, voucher. So it's the law. I do not have the authority as the state superintendent to expand it or ask for a moratorium.
But what I do have the authority to do is bring all the stakeholders together to talk about what kind of funding formula needs to be addressed. So nobody has asked the question of how can we work together to fund our schools? And what would that look like?
Our funding formula is over 80 years old. And so I think it's time for a refresh. I realize that there are some high-performing school choice and charter schools. And I also realize there's not some. And that goes for the public schools as well. And so what can we learn from each other, maybe share services and look at it more as a partnership. Because this is a 40-year-old argument, and I would like to move forward.
WUWM: Are there any other priorities you would have a state superintendent that you want to share?
Kerr: I have an equity and excellence lens that I want to look at all of our work through. Because when you do that you make sure that all kids get what they need.
The second part of my platform is making sure that there's a connection between workforce development. Right now we need to fill jobs in IT, agriculture, manufacturing, nursing, teachers. And so we need to promote the trades as a viable post-secondary option that is very critical to us moving forward and maintaining and keeping our talented kids in Wisconsin.
The third area is partnerships with our parents. Partnerships with our parents means that we will listen to them. Parents are to have the first choice of where to send their kids to school, whether it's public, private, charter, or whatever sector and so we need to honor that with all of our parents.
And then the final one is honoring our teachers. Our teachers need to be lifted up. They are doing some amazing work, even in this virtual learning. And so I want to do a full-scale marketing and PR campaign on the great profession of teaching.
And then finally, decentralization of DPI. Part of the problem with the DPI is that they've been in Madison, and almost everybody who works there lives in Madison. Well, you know what, we've got a different opportunity now to transform education, not go back to business the old way, and making sure that we're becoming a more customer service-friendly organization.
WUWM: Final question. What's one of the most influential education-related books, documentaries or speeches that you've heard or read during your career? And how did it affect your views?
Kerr: That is a great question. I am an avid reader, and I have lots of books that I'm reading right now. But one of them that has really stood out to me as I have intentionally tried to create a bipartisan campaign team to unify us all around education, is called [Why We’re Polarized] by Ezra Klein. And this book talks about the history of the Democrats and Republicans and how they used to get along and used to reach across the aisle.
I want people to know that we can unify around education, that our children are not partisan, okay? Our kids don't wear blue or red jackets. Our kids want a great education. And so I want to make sure that the state superintendent does exactly that: supports all kids.
But it's definitely a sign of the times. Everyone's so politically fatigued and polarized and people will try to push you into a corner. And our kids are not like that — our kids deserve to have the best high quality education possible.
WUWM: Do you feel like you've been pushed into a corner as a state superintendent candidate?
Kerr: Absolutely. Because everyone wants to know if you're on one side or the other, but that's not what it is. As a superintendent, you've always had to lead from the middle, and I will continue to lead from the middle. I will continue to make sure that we have great policy that is reflective of the values of the people who live in Wisconsin and who want our educational system to be better.
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