Meet The 2021 Wisconsin State Superintendent Candidates

Feb 10, 2021

After the Feb. 16 Primary Election, the field for Wisconsin State Superintendent for Public Instruction has narrowed from seven to two people — Deborah Kerr and Jill Underly. Kerr is the former Brown Deer School District superintendent and Underly is the current superintendent of the rural Pecatonica School District.

Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who currently holds the seat, was appointed state superintendent in 2019 by Tony Evers, who held the position before he was elected governor. Stanford Taylor decided not to run in this election.

>> Underly, Kerr Advance In Wisconsin State Superintendent Race

To help you get to know more about the candidates, we sent them the same list of questions. Here are their responses (in alphabetical order). The responses have not been edited by WUWM.

Deborah Kerr

Credit Courtesy Deborah Kerr

Tell voters about yourself, and what makes you uniquely qualified to be state superintendent: 

I am uniquely qualified to lead DPI in these unprecedented times. My passion for serving children for the past forty-one years, and my experiences at all levels have prepared me for this critical role. Wisconsin needs a leader who will address mental health needs, and advocate for funding to overcome this pandemic. My track record of closing achievement gaps, high graduation rates, and ensuring success for all children in Brown Deer is noteworthy. I am a visionary leader, honored to have served as President of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators and the member American Association of School Administrators. I have been the voice of school district leaders at all levels and will continue to do so after elected.

What would your top priorities be as state superintendent?

I have four top priorities: Ensure Success for All Students through Equity with Excellence including: Character education, Social-emotional & mental health support; Laser focus on literacy and math; Strength-based pathways; Rigorous & relevant learning Innovate and Personalize Learning for All Students including: Personalized learning; Robust internet; Professional development; Fostering innovations Engage Families and Communities as Partners -Ensure children & families are well served as valued partners; Elevate all children & families; Foster partnerships Lead with Strength and Respect, and Honor all Stakeholders - Increase student achievement & accountability; Honor stakeholders; Tell great education stories; Promote the profession.

How would you navigate the state Legislature to advance education funding priorities?

I will continue to build relationships with all legislators and work across the aisle. Legislators are likely to dedicate more funding to schools when they see that their investments are showing a return. For years, the State Superintendent’s voice has been limited in the halls of the State Capitol due to a longstanding, broken relationship and misunderstandings about educational priorities. It’s time to begin the serious work of collaboration and garner respect for the role of both the State Superintendent and DPI. It’s time to show them what we can do: raise achievement for all students AND close achievement gaps. It will be hard to argue against additional funding if we can show it will be well-spent to improve outcomes.

As the top official overseeing education in the state, what would you do to improve outcomes for Black students, who experience some of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the country?

For 40 years, I have been immersed in equity and inclusion work. Equity is about closing achievement gaps and providing access and opportunity - providing students, families, staff what they need. It is not giving everyone the same thing. Equity means having the courage to ask questions that help us understand our own inherent biases, create a culture of no shame, no blame, no judgment, and address inequities in our organizations. As Superintendent of Brown Deer Public Schools, we got impressive results and closed achievement gaps with a laser focus on reading. Our team was “all in,” and as a state we need to be “all in” to eliminate achievement gaps . It will be our collective leadership that allows us to unite around this mission.

What should DPI do to support students and schools with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic?

My plan ensures the health and safety of students and staff while also addressing learning loss and the social and emotional impact of COVID on a school community. Through collaboration and clear communication between stakeholders, we will implement both a safety plan and a transition plan for social and emotional learning. We will use evidence-based acceleration practices to identify learning loss and target interventions to ensure growth in specified essential standards. We will provide professional learning for teachers and staff while also leveraging community partnerships to provide out of school time programming. We will work with policymakers to support state and federal funding resources and learn from others.

You can visit Deborah Kerr's website to learn more

Jill Underly

Credit Courtesy Jill Underly

Tell voters about yourself, and what makes you uniquely qualified to be state superintendent: 

I’m the Superintendent of Pecatonica School District. Unlike the other candidates, I’ve worked in urban, rural, and suburban districts, and I’m the only candidate in this race who is currently leading a school district during this time of public health and economic crises. Previously, I have experience as a teacher, as a principal, as a university advisor, and as a Department of Public Instruction leader. I have the strongest and broadest experience and am ready to lead DPI on day one. My focus is making sure every child has what they need to succeed every day, no matter where they are coming from. We need more investment in early childhood education and to fix the school funding formula.

What would your top priorities be as state superintendent?

My platform is rooted in equity and getting every child what they need, every day. This means prioritizing:

  • Early childhood education and universal 4K access
  • Teacher recruitment and retention
  • Mental Health and Health Supports
  • School Funding Formula Revision
  • Facilities Improvement, particularly infrastructure & HVAC in aging buildings

The heart of all of this is the school funding formula revision, and my overarching goal is to repair the formula or replace it all together so that it is equitable for all students, regardless of their zip code. I would also advocate for a separate stream of funding to repair and/or replace aging facilities in communities that have not been able to raise the revenue to improve their school buildings.

How would you navigate the state Legislature to advance education funding priorities?

I would focus on relationships and communication, and getting more voices around the table to work on and solve our problems and improve schools together. I work with school board members of all political stripes, and I have a track record of showing up and advocating for kids and public schools with our legislature. I also know that we can’t work in a vacuum. We have to work together. People of all political persuasions love their local public schools, and I would use the DPI to communicate the positives of public schools, the policies we’re advocating for in the legislature, and to get people to show up to support those policies.

As the top official overseeing education in the state, what would you do to improve outcomes for Black students, who experience some of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the country?

My platform is all about equity: giving every child what they need, every day. The core of this is investing in our kids early, providing early childhood education for every child, regardless of their zip code. We must invest in wrap-around programs, after-school programming, and summer enrichment. We must invest in our teachers and diversify our teaching ranks and pay our teachers more. This investment must extend beyond the classroom, with more support for mental health and school nursing. Finally, our schools need to provide support to parents, using our schools as community centers for education and support. We also need to change our school funding system so that it gets the most money to the most kids in the most school districts.

What should DPI do to support students and schools with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic?

Recovering from COVID-19 will be a top priority, as well as addressing racial inequity, and I will advocate to:

  • Vaccinate all adults in schools as soon as possible
  • Provide additional staffing to maintain lower class sizes & hire/contract with more support personnel in mental health, social work, school nursing
  • Fully fund & provide universal 4K, full day/everyday
  • Provide for & structure additional recovery program offerings: birth-to-three, after-school programs for recovery and enrichment, summer camps for students currently without access, and summer school
  • Upgrade our school buildings & infrastructure to meet 21st-century building codes and expectations, particularly rural & urban schools.
  • Advocate for universal high-speed internet.

You can visit Jill Underly's website to learn more. 

The following candidates did not advance to the Apr. 6 general election:

Sheila Briggs
Credit Courtesy Sheila Briggs

Tell voters about yourself, and what makes you uniquely qualified to be state superintendent: 

I have experience and expertise, demonstrated through results for all students, especially traditionally underserved students. My experience includes teaching kindergarten, leading as principal of a Madison elementary school, and coaching 32 Madison principals. As a principal, 3rd grade reading proficiency increased from 58% to 100% despite poverty tripling. Because of this success, Tony Evers asked me to join him at the Department of Public Instruction in 2011. I lead 5 teams responsible for supporting instructional practices statewide. These teams have designed & implemented programs which close achievement gaps within 3 years. As State Superintendent, I will use my experience and expertise to support similar results statewide.

What would your top priorities be as state superintendent?

This is a moment when we must decide to never go back. It is a moment to improve what is working, leave behind what is not, and move forward towards something better. Not all of our kids are seeing success and opportunity in school, and my platform is focused on fixing the systems that perpetuate these inequities. We must stop chasing test scores. It is hurting everyone involved, and our test scores are going down. We must stop demonizing our teachers and instead improve the working conditions in our classrooms. We must support our schools with the funding and resources they need to build back for the future. Now more than ever, we need experienced leadership to help our schools recover from this crisis. I will be ready to lead on Day 1.

How would you navigate the state Legislature to advance education funding priorities?

We cannot ignore the impact that this pandemic will have on the next state budget. Thousands of Wisconsinites are out of work, and the financial effects of COVID-19 will be felt for years. However, we cannot balance our budget problems on the backs of our kids and teachers. They need more resources to reopen safely, stronger mental health services, and better access to broadband. I’m ready to work closely with the legislature to ensure that every school is supported. This is not something that can get done by simply submitting an agency budget every two years. This is going to require sustained work – building relationships, demonstrating success, and providing clear explanations as to how investments translate into results for our kids.

As the top official overseeing education in the state, what would you do to improve outcomes for Black students, who experience some of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the country?

All of my priorities are rooted in equity, and I’ve shown success in closing racial opportunity gaps as a principal and district administrator in Madison. Tackling this issue at the statewide level is going to take bold leadership and a lot of work. It’s going to take changing our accountability system, the way we assess students, and the way we teach skills like reading. It’s going to require us to improve educator preparation and diversify our teacher pipeline. And of course, it’s going to take some serious funding changes to make sure our public schools have the resources they need to support every student. I’ve spent my 30-year career fighting inequity in education, and I’m eager to continue that work as State Superintendent.

What should DPI do to support students and schools with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic?

Recovering from this pandemic will require patience and empathy. Our students and staff have experienced fear, anxiety, isolation, and trauma during this crisis. I am confident we can get through this while still supporting our students and meeting their academic needs. It is critical that we do not fall into the trap of using remediation methods that we know don’t work. Teachers need to be supported with high-quality materials and professional development so that they can provide their students with grade-level instruction and give additional help to those who need it. I’m committed to making sure that all of our districts have the resources and protective equipment they need to protect students and keep them moving forward.

You can visit Sheila Briggs' website to learn more. 

Joe Fenrick
Credit Courtesy Joe Fenrick

Tell voters about yourself, and what makes you uniquely qualified to be state superintendent: 

As an educator currently in my 15th year teaching science at Fond du Lac High School I see the day to day implementation of policies, and how they are working both for and against our children. I will use common sense reform, to get back to the basics.

As a geology lecturer for the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I see the importance of preparing our children for the future. Universities and technical colleges could provide great opportunities to children of all ages and I will work to create partnerships between them and our schools.

As a current elected official I understand the importance of working with everyone and local control. As a father I will make sure that policies are family friendly.

What would your top priorities be as state superintendent?

Together with families, educators, and students I want education to be a model of bottom up instead of top down. Where parents, teachers, and community members come together to make decisions.

Teaching not testing! We need more hands on learning in our classrooms where teachers are given time to teach. We need our teachers teaching employability skills, hands on skills not test taking skills. We also need to take the stress off our children by reducing the number of high stakes tests. We need an education budget that is predictable, transparent, and fair. We are seeing school districts budget based on referendum which is not predictable nor fair. Every student deserves an equitable education that promotes future promise.

How would you navigate the state Legislature to advance education funding priorities?

As a current elected official I have experience working with the state legislature advocating for our children and the Fond du Lac community. As the chair of the Human Service and Social Service committees for Fond du lac County I have worked with the state Legislature for an increase in funding for children’s mental health services, social worker positions, and economic support. I have bipartisan support and have worked with both Democrats and Republicans. It is not about politics, it is about our kids and education in our state.

As the top official overseeing education in the state, what would you do to improve outcomes for Black students, who experience some of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the country?

We need to start closing the learning gaps early in a child’s life. Every student deserves an equitable education that promotes future promise. The initial years of a child’s education are extremely important as they build their foundation of education.

This means that schools need to provide wrap around services to children and help with vocabulary, letters, and counting. Not being prepared for kindergarten and starting school already behind, is a burden that no child should have to bear. As the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will do everything that I can to ensure that every parent, grandparent, guardian, and caregiver have every possible opportunity to surround our kids with the materials, help, and time that they need.

What should DPI do to support students and schools with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic?

First and foremost the best learning happens in our classrooms. I want our children back in our schools, but it must be done safely for both our children and the educational staff. The Wisconsin DPI should be leading the way in opening our schools. This means that they should be advocating for teachers to get the vaccine as soon as possible. I believe that the choice to get vaccinated should be left up to the teacher and the faster teachers are vaccinated the faster schools can open safely. As an elected official I provided input on writing the guidelines for opening our schools in Fond du Lac County. The guidelines focused on safety for everyone while providing an opportunity for in person learning.

You can visit Joe Fenrick's website to learn more. 

Troy Gunderson
Credit Courtesy Troy Gunderson

Tell voters about yourself, and what makes you uniquely qualified to be state superintendent: 

I am a fifth generation Wisconsinite and the product of an outstanding education offered by the great folks at the School District of Colfax. My wife, mother, and father-in-law all enjoyed successful careers as teachers in Wisconsin. Every opportunity afforded to me in my lifetime is somehow connected to public education. This includes my 35-year career as a teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent in the school districts of Melrose-Mindoro, Princeton, Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau, and West Salem. Ensuring these opportunities are provided for generations to come regardless of factors like race, gender, ethnicity, family income, and zip code serve as my daily motivation.

What would your top priorities be as state superintendent?

My platform involves Leaders Ready to Lead, Students Ready to Learn, and Teachers Ready to Teach combined to ensure we produce Future Ready Graduates. We will lead by creating a new statewide vision for public education. A vision that unifies the entire state in service to all students. We will prepare our students with expanded early learning opportunities, a focus on equity, and expanded systems of family support. We will recruit, develop, and support the next generation of teachers. Finally, we will ensure all high school graduates are career, college, and life ready to serve as productive citizens of this great state.

How would you navigate the state Legislature to advance education funding priorities?

I believe the key to a more active role in legislative advocacy is first an acceptance that the State Superintendent of Public Instruction is not a lawmaker but an influencer. This means using the “bully pulpit” of the office to be a champion for public education and developing relationships with legislators to better impact the process. As a professor of School Finance at Viterbo University I am well equipped to debate both the details of education funding and to advocate for a more equitable approach. I believe the best way to impact the legislative process is to set an aggressive agenda for change based upon a vision for the future not a defense of the past.

As the top official overseeing education in the state, what would you do to improve outcomes for Black students, who experience some of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the country?

If elected as the next State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will make the closure of this achievement gap a top priority for the entire state. Success will require a more culturally sensitive approach with professional development for educators in the areas of engaging African American students and families, offering significant examples of positive racial identity, and celebrating cultural differences and experiences. Purposeful cultural awareness, high academic expectations for all students, and authentic relationships with families and their communities offer a path to success for all children. We must get better at meeting all children and families where they “are” not where we think they “should be.”

What should DPI do to support students and schools with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic?

I believe a top priority for the DPI regarding COVID is leadership. I suggest the department gather data and information from other states and from Wisconsin school districts regarding the impact of the pandemic on student learning and emotional health. The department will then lead a collaborative approach to developing a statewide strategy in support of school districts as they begin to bridge the academic and emotional impact of the pandemic. Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic create tremendous social disruption which can take years to repair. They also bring about the opportunity for breathtaking leaps forward. Working collaboratively with a “we are all in this together” focus assures we all benefit from the success of others.

You can visit Troy Gunderson's website to learn more. 

Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams
Credit Courtesy Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams

Tell voters about yourself, and what makes you uniquely qualified to be state superintendent: 

My desire to serve as State Superintendent is grounded in my experiences as a parent, teacher and administrator serving over 25 years in public, private, charter and higher education as a paraprofessional, special education teacher, assistant principal, principal, district administrator and regional director. I have served at the DPI as an assistant director and director at DPI prior the Governor appointing me as a member of his senior leadershi p team. I literally went from depending on the state to care for my children to serving at the highest level of the state, while navigating systemic inequites. I am the only candidate with the knowledge and disposition to addres systemic inequities that plague education in Wisconsin.

What would your top priorities be as state superintendent?

As state superintendent, I will work with stakeholders to (1) reform our current school funding formulas, (2) implement my Bill of Rights for Wisconsin students which articulate what each child from K3 through 12th grade will receive during their education experiences, (3) address statewide teacher shortages through implementing my Statewide Plan for Diversifying the Teacher pipeline, (4) increase parental involvement, (5) elevate the field of teaching and increase teacher pay as a means of closing achievement gaps.

How would you navigate the state Legislature to advance education funding priorities?

As the only candidate who has recent experience working with the Governor and legislature, I possses demonstrated ability to work across party lines. Having navitaged the legislature in my personal and professional life, I know that our elected officials want Wisconsin to make good on its Constitutional promises. They defined what a sound education is. My plan aligns with their definition and is something that they can get behind as we move Wisconsin forward and address inequities in others areas, as well.

As the top official overseeing education in the state, what would you do to improve outcomes for Black students, who experience some of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the country?

My Bill of Rights for Wisconsin Students call for early childhood programs, supportive services, community based partnerships, mentoring, internships and dual credit courses that are all vital in meeting the needs of all students, particularly student of color. When at DPI, I developed a statewide plan for diversifying the teacher pipeline. This was based on research that states that students of color experienced increased academic outcomes when they experience just one teacher of color. Within my first 100 days, I am going to find that plan and immediately implement it.

What should DPI do to support students and schools with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic?

Ensuring that we have much neede supportive services by way of social workers, psychologist and school counselors will assist students and families with pivoting back from virtual learning to face to face instruction. DPI should develop a COVID-19 checklist to ensure districts are prepared to safely return students and teachers back to school, ensuring that PPE, barriers and other critical items are available and ready, particularly in school districts that are currently inequitably funded.

You can visit Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams' website to learn more. 

Steve Krull
Credit Courtesy Steve Krull

Tell voters about yourself, and what makes you uniquely qualified to be state superintendent: 

I was born, raised, and went to school in Milwaukee. After high school, I served in the US Air Force as an instructor and manager. I earned my doctorate at UW-Milwaukee and am now the principal at Garland School. At Garland, we work to create meaningful change for the better. I am proud of the hard work from the staff, students, and parents that led to our success.

My wife Amanda and I have two children. We enjoy the outdoors, games, and the Brewers. I am running for state superintendent because we need change. Inequities between our schools are forcing us into a two-tied system where soon only the most wealthy will have quality schools. I believe we must rebuild our education system so every child can have a chance for a better life.

What would your top priorities be as state superintendent?

The number one job of the state superintendent of public instruction is to protect our public schools. To do so, I believe we must phase out the school voucher program. After nearly 30 years, vouchers did not live up to their promise. Many fell flat and shut down, while others are rated a failure by the state. Vouchers also cost about $350,000,000 a year, we can use that money to rebuild our public schools.

Second, we must properly fund our schools. We need to bring back Vocational Ed., Art, Music, Gym, Library, and STEM programs. We must support our special education, bilingual, English learner programs, and lower class sizes. These first steps will help us repair our Wisconsin education system and grow opportunity for all children.

How would you navigate the state Legislature to advance education funding priorities?

Education funding is broken in Wisconsin. We rely heavily on property taxes which creates a system where the wealthiest among us tend to have more resources for their schools compared to everyone else. To fix this problem, we must establish and finance a basic standard of student care. So every district has the resources they need to properly educate our children for success.

We will appeal to both sides of the aisle. Our plan calls for reducing school property taxes by up to 30%. Then the state can then gain the revenue it needs by closing loopholes, legalizing/taxing marajuana, shifting priorities, etc. We need equal and equitable resources across Wisconsin if we are to rebuild our schools and once again lead the nation in education.

As the top official overseeing education in the state, what would you do to improve outcomes for Black students, who experience some of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the country?

We can reduce the opportunity gap in two ways. First, we have to change the culture of the classroom. All teachers must provide culturally & linguistically responsive teaching and ensure no child is discriminated against or bullied. Children who feel physically, socially, and emotionally safe are more likely to learn at higher levels.

Second, we must address the inequities between school districts. We need to adopt and fund a basic standard of student care at the state level. Then we should provide additional resources to our students with special needs, English learners, bilingual students, etc. I believe equal and equitable funding will help ensure that every Wisconsin child receives a top-notch education.

What should DPI do to support students and schools with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic?

The pandemic put a spotlight on the inequities between our school districts. Some districts could afford smaller class sizes for physical distincing, new HVAC systems that filter out viruses, and PPE. These resource rich communities managed risk and opened quicker. Other schools do not have the same resources and chose to teach in a hybrid or virtual model.

In my view, 99% of students benefit most from full in-person learning. Because only some districts fully opened, the gaps we saw before the pandemic most likely went up. I believe this is a perfect opportunity for school finance reform. Let’s work together to create a truly equitable school finance system that can lead to higher levels of success for all our Wisconsin students.

You can visit Steve Krull's website to learn more. 

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