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Underly Calls Superintendent Opponent Kerr Transphobic

Courtesy of Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr
Jill Underly (left) accused her fellow candidate for Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Deborah Kerr (right) of being transphobic after Kerr indicated her support for a bill that would ban transgender girls from women's sports in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin school superintendent candidate Jill Underly accused her opponent Deborah Kerr of being transphobic during a forum Thursday because Kerr supports prohibiting transgender students from playing girls sports.

The spirited back and forth came during a virtual question and answer session hosted by the Milwaukee Press Association just five days before Tuesday's election. The winner will serve a four-year term as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the state's top education official.

The candidates were asked whether they support bills introduced by legislative Republicans that would prohibit transgender girls from participating in girls and women's sports at the high school and college levels. Wisconsin is one of more than 20 states that are considering restrictions on athletics or gender-confirming health care for transgender minors.

Kerr, the 63-year-old former superintendent of the Brown Deer school district, said she was a “girl of Title IX” and participated in sports all of her life, including in high school and while a student at Valparaiso University.

“I want to play against other biological women and girls," Kerr said. "I don’t think it’s fair to have competition that does otherwise.”

Underly, 43, accused Kerr of being transphobic.

“I guess I’m just taken a little aback by that," Underly said of Kerr's comments. “Trans kids are kids, plain and simple. They deserve to feel safe and welcome at school."

Underly said she opposes the bill that would prohibit transgender girls from playing on girls team.

Kerr stood by her position.

“I know that many parents are concerned about this kind of thinking,” Kerr said. “They want their girls participating against other girls, it has nothing to do with transphobia. This was not even an issue years ago.”

In almost every state where lawmakers are pushing to bar transgender girls from participating on girls teams, sponsors cannot cite a single instance in their own state or region where such participation has caused problems.

In another heated exchange, Kerr accused Underly and her supporters of trying to “buy this election for the Democrats.” Underly has a massive financial advantage over Kerr, raising more than $1.3 million in February and March compared with about $71,000 for Kerr. Outside groups supporting Underly have outspent a pro-voucher group backing Kerr by a 13-to-1 margin, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Kerr has run as a strong advocate of the state’s private school voucher program and of fully reopening the state’s public schools to in-person learning five days a week. Underly wants to freeze enrollment in voucher schools — a position that helped her win support from the state's teachers union.

Although the race is officially nonpartisan, Democrats and their allies have largely lined up behind Underly while Republicans and their allies are mostly backing Kerr. The Wisconsin Democratic Party has contributed more than $900,000 in cash and in-kind support to Underly, while Kerr has received $20,000 from conservative mega-donor Diane Hendricks and has the endorsement of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica school district, said she had not seen any of the ads run by outside groups attacking Kerr.

“Don't pretend you haven't seen these ads, you need to come clean on this,” Kerr said.

Underly, meanwhile, said she supports requiring schools to teach about the Holocaust and genocide, as is being proposed under a bill with bipartisan support in the Legislature. Kerr said that decision should be left up to local districts, but that information and resources should be made available for those that choose to teach it.

And Kerr said she supports amending the Wisconsin Constitution to have the post she is running for instead be an appointment of the governor. Underly said she would oppose such a move and supports keeping it an elected position. Most states do not elect the state superintendent of schools.

The winner of Tuesday's election will replace Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor. Gov. Tony Evers appointed Stanford Taylor to replace him as superintendent after he won the governor’s office in 2018. She decided not to run for election.

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