'We Need To Do Whatever It Takes': An Interview With State Superintendent Candidate Jill Underly
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 Jill Underly.
WUWM: As state superintendent, what would you do to help schools and students deal with the consequences of the pandemic?
Underly: So we need to certainly make sure that our schools get the resources that they need so that they can do face-to-face learning.
There's a couple things to keep in mind. Our schools are open, it's really just a matter of the mode of instruction. If we want face-to-face, we have to ensure that our teachers are vaccinated, we have to ensure that they're safe. And so and it's not just the teachers, it's for the safety of the kids too, because the kids, you know, may live with family members who have underlying conditions in their health, and the kids may have those too.
So I would ensure that we can get our teachers and our staff fully vaccinated. And then beyond that, we need to ensure that our schools have the resources that they need, so that they can safely do face-to-face instruction.
In some school districts, it's going to be easier. My schools have been open here in Pecatonica because we can safely physically distance. We also put more resources into custodial and cleaning, and hiring school nurses. And not every school can do that.
The other piece of it also is our school buildings are old. In Wisconsin, I think it's like 65% of our schools have outdated HVAC systems. And what we know about the virus is that it spreads through the air.
So the state of Wisconsin needs to figure out how we can, you know, get more revenue to our schools so that they can update their infrastructure and make their buildings safe for everybody.
WUWM: Looking forward to the fall semester, there has been some discussion about whether schools will be able to fully reopen, even in the fall. As state superintendent, what specific action would you take to encourage that? Or would you leave that up to school districts?
Underly: I do believe it needs to be a local decision, just because our school districts are so very different. Like I said, some school districts are able to physically distance their kids and their staff. Others have better air filtration and HVAC systems and more resources so they can hire more custodial.
So I think identifying metrics as to what is needed, and then assisting those school districts to get to those metrics. Of course, I'm going to encourage face-to-face learning. We're also learning that some kids are thriving in virtual too. So perhaps going forward, we do keep both modes of instruction.
But as far as face-to-face goes, I'd certainly be helping school districts identify those resources so that they can do face-to-face because we know that's what the majority of the kids want. That's the majority of what the parents want too.
WUWM: What are your thoughts on the push by Republican legislators to financially reward schools that have been open in person during the pandemic? That could potentially benefit your school district because you've been open, right?
Underly: Yes, it could potentially benefit my school district because, you know, certainly there are more costs associated with being open. But there are also more costs that I think people fail to realize with being closed, too.
I do feel it's, you know, basically politicizing this and pitting communities against communities and schools against schools. Certainly I look at it as a way to stick it to our urban school districts, which isn't right. I disagree with the Legislature trying to try to go about it this way.
WUWM: Do you support Gov. Evers’ $1.6 billion education budget proposal? And what parts of that budget do you think are most important to advocate for as it gets whittled down by Republican lawmakers?
Underly: Yes, I do support Gov. Evers’ budget. Just as my platform says, every child every day should have access to a great public education, no matter their zip code.
And so I fully support Gov. Evers’ proposal to restore, for example, the state's commitment to two-thirds funding for schools. I support greater investments in special education reimbursement, funding sparsity aid for rural schools, and investing in student mental health. I mean, all of these things that he has put in his budget are critical to the kids of our state.
We've seen for a long time that our current funding formula is broken. I mean, every election, we see a great number of school districts that are going to referendum for operational purposes. And every time a referendum is passed, our school funding formula becomes more broken.
WUWM: So it sounds like there's not really one or two items in there that you can kind of point out as the highest priorities for you?
Underly: The special education funding, I think, you know, I mentioned that. I mentioned transportation aid, I mentioned sparsity aid.
So special education funding benefits all kids and it benefits all our school districts right now. Our reimbursement is below 30%. And we have to make that budget whole at the end of the year.
So even in my smaller school district, we transfer half a million dollars a year out of our general fund to cover special education. And when you think about larger school districts, I mean, we're talking millions of dollars, if not tens of millions of dollars, that have to come out of their general budget to make special education classes whole.
WUWM: I want to ask about Wisconsin's achievement gap. People also call it an opportunity gap, between Black and white students – some of the biggest gaps in the nation. What would you do to close those gaps?
Underly: I just want to give you kudos for calling in an opportunity gap. I started talking about it in those terms back in the very beginnings of the campaign. So I'm glad that you you're mentioning that because that's truly what it is. When we call it an achievement gap, we're putting the blame and the onus on our kids, when the reality is the achievement gaps are caused by decades, a century of racist policies in how we discipline kids, you know, and how we've – our zip codes determine educational opportunity.
But when we talk about opportunities, really, it comes down to the fact that the kids in better-resourced communities and better-resourced schools are going to come out ahead in public education. And, and for me, it's about leveling the playing field.
And that starts with changing the systems of inequity that hurt kids. So my platform again, you know, with early childhood education, ensuring that all kids get a strong start starting with preschool or even before with birth-to-three programs.
We also need to look at teacher recruitment and retention. This past decade, we've had such a decline in enrollment in our teacher preparation programs coupled with high rates of retirement and attrition. We can't recruit teachers fast enough. And so kids who are the most vulnerable, who are in the highest-poverty schools, are left with the least experienced teachers in many cases.
We also need to address mental health. And that's another thing that my platform looks at. Kids need resources, you know, school counselors, and school nurses and mental health professionals in our schools to help them.
And also underlying all of this, of course, is the school funding formula. We need to fix it because we can't do anything that I talked about before if we're not getting the financial resources to the schools, and the kids that needed the most.
WUWM: The Palmyra Eagle school district was on the verge of dissolution last year, because of declining enrollment. Specifically, they were losing a lot of students to neighboring districts through the Open Enrollment program. And this could be a problem for other rural districts in the future. So do you think dissolution is an appropriate solution for rural districts with shrinking enrollment?
Underly: Look at it this way: if that's what the local school board decides to do, then that's what we need to do. You know, I'm not going I'm not going to be somebody who will say, you know, go against the wishes of the locally-elected school board if they decide to dissolve, but I will tell you that we do need more options in our rural communities. And they need to be public options.
So for example, in Palmyra Eagle’s case, why couldn't they have kept two K-8 buildings and then worked with their neighboring communities that they were already losing so many kids to, to have instead those kids go to a unified high school. In that particular case, I think that would have been a good solution to explore. Both Palmyra and Eagle could have kept their local building.
But again, I'm not going to be the state superintendent that tells school districts, local elected school boards, what's best for them with reorganization. It needs to come from the grassroots, local level. But I think, you know, the state could certainly assist with options.
WUWM: As state superintendent, would you propose in your budget any changes to the Open Enrollment program, parental choice programs or charter school rules?
Underly: So that's a pretty complicated question. I will start with Open Enrollment. You don't necessarily have any issues with Open Enrollment, like, of course, you mentioned with Palmyra Eagle, a lot of rural schools go through that. So certainly, when you talk to parents about Open Enrollment, it's really about what's best for their kid. And I can't argue with a parent on that.
What I would like to explore though, with Open Enrollment is perhaps looking at the Chapter 220 program. Again, I know that was phased out of Milwaukee, but when you look at, you know, as a program that was really successful, as far as segregation and lifting up kids, that deserves another look.
As far as the charters, I am not in favor of independent charters. You know, local school boards, who authorize charters, that's something entirely different. That’s OK. Right, because they are accountable to their local school board. The charters are authorized locally. Independent charters, it's questionable who they're accountable to.
And then when you look at the voucher program, I do feel that the voucher program has been a drain on our public schools, not just financially but also on our students. I'm not going to take away a voucher from a kid who currently has one, but I would be in favor of phasing out the voucher program. Because I truly believe that our public dollars should stay in our public schools, and they should not be in our private schools.
WUWM: Last question. I'm wondering what is one of the most influential education-related books, documentaries or speeches you heard or read during your career and how it affected your views?
Underly: The title of the book was, Whatever It Takes [by Paul Tough.] And I think just from that title, you could gather what that what that book was about. But basically, it was whatever it takes is what we need to do to ensure that all kids have access to a high-quality public education and that they're successful. So if it's providing meals, if it's providing medical, if it's providing, you know, mental health, if it's providing early childhood, if it's providing apprenticeships – or whatever it takes, that's what we need to do, in order to ensure that we have the best public education system possible.
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