Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr are facing off for the state superintendent seat in the April 6 election. The race is non-partisan and is the only statewide race on the ballot.
Underly is accusing her opponent Deborah Kerr of being transphobic because Kerr supports prohibiting transgender students from playing on girls teams. The spirited back and forth came Thursday 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. Kerr says it's not fair to have transgender girls on girls teams. Underly calls that transphobic and says “trans kids are kids, plain and simple.”
Current state superintendent of schools, Carolyn Stanford Taylor, decided not to run in the 2021 election.
Underly is currently the Pecatonica School District superintendent and Kerr is the former superintendent for the Brown Deer School District.
Both candidates identified the same main issue facing Wisconsin's students: the impacts of the pandemic on learning.
"The top priority is getting our kids back into school," Kerr said.
"Making sure all our buildings are open for in-person instruction this fall," Underly said.
However, the winner of this race will not take office until after this school year is over. So the focus is shifted to the fall. But Kerr said she wants to get a head start on getting kids caught up.
"We need to take advantage of the summer school months and how we can offer different activities and programs for our students, not only to remediate but to accelerate and do enrichment," Kerr said.
She's also proposing an earlier start date in August, and if elected, would work with the state legislature to require schools to open.
Underly said when it comes to getting students back in the classroom, she's focusing on making sure everything is in place so that when schools do fully reopen, they can stay open.
"We'll have to make sure that our schools have the resources needed to make sure that they can open safely. So, of course PPE is important, but also if we have to look at if we can use other spaces even," Underly said.
She also added that mental health will be a key component in her administration if elected.
But school issues extend beyond this moment in history. Each candidate discussed their top priorities outside of the pandemic.
Underly said: "Expanding access to public education and the opportunities that it provides to all kids. So starting young, looking at birth to pre-programming, full-day full week 4k, high-quality child care."
And Kerr responded: "Decentralize [the Department of Public Instruction] so that we can have better customer service and support for all our learners in the state of Wisconsin."
A lot of money is also being put into this race; it's outspent previous races for this seat. According to the latest campaign committee reports files, this week Kerr has raised $99,694.92 and spent $105,953.73. Underly has raised $1,158,655.73 and spent $826,298.
The two candidates also participated in a debate hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club on Thursday. The Milwaukee Press Club said the full debate will be available on its YouTube channel.