For the first time in about 20 years, there’s a wide-open race for Wisconsin’s top K-12 education official. Seven candidates are running for superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction.
Incumbent Carolyn Stanford Taylor is not seeking election. She was appointed two years ago to serve the remainder of Tony Evers’ term, after he was elected governor.
The candidates are DPI Assistant State Superintendent Sheila Briggs, Fon du Lac high school teacher Joe Fenrick, former West Salem Superintendent Troy Gunderson, former teacher and Milwaukee office director for Gov. Evers Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, former Brown Deer Superintendent Deborah Kerr, Milwaukee elementary school principal Steve Krull, and Pecatonica Area Superintendent Jill Underly.
The Feb. 16 primary will narrow the candidate pool to two people, who will face off in the April 6 election.
When asked what they want to see from the next state superintendent, Wisconsin education advocates often turn to school funding, since the DPI superintendent puts forward a statewide education budget every two years.
“We have very well-resourced schools in some communities, in some parts of the state, and we have schools that are barely struggling to make ends meet in others,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN.) “The inequity in our funding system has created so many problems that the superintendent is going to have to tackle.”
One sign of the flaws in Wisconsin’s education funding system is the frequency of school referendums. The referendums allow schools to circumvent state-imposed revenue caps by asking taxpayers for more money.
“Budgeting via the referendum is not a healthy way to go,” says Wisconsin Rural School Alliance director Kim Kaukl. “We’ve got some districts that know they’re going to go to referendum every 2-3 years, just for operational – to keep things open.”
But it’s not just a matter of keeping the doors open. Many schools also want to increase funding in critical areas. For instance, Kaukl says rural districts are struggling to meet student mental health needs.
“Out in the rural areas, it’s very hard to find mental health workers,” Kaukl says. “We all know that mental health is a very key issue right now. And I think as we come out of this pandemic, we’re going to see more issues with mental health.”
Special education has also been a major funding challenge. Right now, Wisconsin reimburses districts for less than a third of their special education costs.
“What we’re hearing from parents across the state is that over the last decade or so, special education services quality has really eroded,” says The Arc Wisconsin Director Lisa Pugh. “And so we think that the state superintendent plays a significant leadership role in terms of the priority that special education issues, and funding and programs get in the state.”
State superintendents can set budget priorities, but their power is limited. Education spending is up to the Legislature and governor. Former DPI superintendent Evers, a Democrat, is now governor. But Wisconsin’s Legislature is dominated by Republicans, who have been reluctant to dramatically increase education funding.
Tony Chambers is director of Equity, Inclusion and Innovation at the UW-Madison Center for Healthy Minds and a WPEN board member. He’s sizing up how the superintendent candidates might be able to navigate resistance in the legislature.
“I think this person’s gonna have to be extremely savvy and clear, and unfortunately very political in how they move the agenda forward,” Chambers says.
Chambers is also hoping the next state superintendent looks to diversify staff ranks within DPI. He says, as an agency trying to tackle Wisconsin’s huge racial achievement gaps, DPI could use some self-examination. Chambers has worked with DPI as part of its Equity Stakeholder Council.
“[DPI] is recognized as paying close attention to issues of equity, so it should reflect that in the composition of the folks who work there, and the composition of the folks who are charged with addressing some of these really intractable issues,” he says.
There will be plenty of challenges facing the next state superintendent, including helping schools with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are sure to be academic, social, and mental health consequences to address when all students are back in school in-person.
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