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Underly, Kerr Advance In Wisconsin State Superintendent Race

Courtesy Deborah Kerr and Jill Underly
Deborah Kerr (left) and Jill Underly (right) were the top two vote-getters in the primary election for state superintendent.

 Updated Wednesday at 11:25 a.m. CT

The race for Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction is a little less crowded, after voters narrowed a field of seven candidates down to two in Tuesday’s primary election.

Unofficial results show Jill Underly with 27.31% of the vote and Deborah Kerr with 26.49%.

>>Meet The 2021 Wisconsin State Superintendent Candidates

Underly is current superintendent of the rural Pecatonica School District. She received the endorsement of the statewide teachers’ union.

Underly said Tuesday night she thinks her experience made her stand out in the election.

"The fact that I’m working as superintendent currently in a pandemic resonates, that I’m a parent of kids in middle school," said Underly. "I’ve had professional experience that has been 360 degrees."

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," said Underly. "I’m all about public schools and I think that’s what resonates with voters.”

Kerr is former Brown Deer School District superintendent. She has received backing from some school choice advocates, including former governor Scott Walker

Kerr told WUWM Tuesday night that if elected, her number one priority will be getting kids back to classrooms.

"Our parents are desperate, our teachers and leaders want to get kids back to school," said Kerr. "The research is showing from schools across the country that you can come back to school safely ... The learning loss is tremendous and we are going to be in this recovery for a long time if we don’t."

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.

The state superintendent candidates share many priorities, such as closing Wisconsin’s racial achievement gaps and reforming education funding in the state.

Wisconsin public education advocates have long pushed for changes to school funding, including increasing support for special education and adjusting property tax caps that put districts on an uneven playing field.

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.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is calling for a $1.6 billion increase in the upcoming biennial budget. But spending proposals have to go through the state Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans.

The next state superintendent is sure to have a voice in that debate.

Kerr and Underly will face off in the general election April 6.

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