Jill Underly, the Democratic Party-backed superintendent of Pecatonica School District, defeated Deb Kerr, the Betsy DeVos-backed former Brown Deer Schools superintendent, Tuesday to become the state’s top education official.
Underly’s campaign spent seven times what Kerr’s campaign spent. Outside groups spent almost four times as much on ads in Underly’s favor than in Kerr’s favor. The American Federation for Children, a lobbying group founded by the family of former President Donald Trump’s Education Secretary DeVos, poured money in on Kerr’s side.
The level of spending — over $1 million in ads alone — was unprecedented for a Wisconsin superintendent race.
Though the position is technically nonpartisan, the candidates clashed over whether taxpayer dollars should go to independent charter schools and to vouchers for students to attend private schools in “school choice” programs. Underly opposed expansions of these programs; Kerr supported.
Underly was endorsed by teachers unions, which traditionally oppose vouchers, because they reduce funding for public schools. Her campaign focused on plans to expand early childhood education programs and diversify the education workforce, in part by easing the pathway for teacher licensure and student loan forgiveness.
“Wisconsin’s kids and public schools face significant challenges as we work to return to normal, get every student caught up, and support their mental health and well being in the aftermath of this pandemic and the enormous trauma and disruption it’s caused for all of us,” Underly said.
“Overcoming these hurdles won’t be easy, but I know that if we work together we can get it done and do what’s right for our kids,” she said.
Kerr was backed largely by conservatives like DeVos, but also had a couple endorsements from Democrats: state Sen. Lena Taylor and former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has supported expanding charter schools.
As of 9:30 p.m., Underly had 372,228 votes while Kerr had 281,469. About 66% of precincts were reporting results, with absentee ballots still left to be counted.
Underly declared victory and Kerr called her late in the evening to concede.
“She fought hard and now I hope for her success. Her success as our state superintendent will mean success for our kids,” Kerr said. “Our kids must always come first.”
In addition to the increasing rancor as election day approached, the political parties of Wisconsin filed ethics complaints against each of the candidates.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin said Underly should not have used her Pecatonica district email address to ask other superintendents for their personal contact information, which she later used for discussion about her election bid.
Days later, a complaint from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin said Kerr should not have used her Brown Deer district email address to discuss business for her new company, Lead Greatly LLC.
The candidates also had major disagreements about the future of the state superintendent position and the Department of Public Instruction. Kerr proposed moving or rehiring most of the more than 400 employees at the agency away from Madison and into offices around the state. Underly criticized the plan as disruptive and costly.
Kerr also said during a forum that she was interested in making the superintendent post into a cabinet position appointed by the governor, rather than elected. A spokesperson for her campaign later walked that back, saying her response came out of frustration at the level of partisan funding in the race.
Underly will start the job in July, taking over for Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who was appointed to the state superintendent position by Tony Evers when he became governor. Evers held the post for nearly a decade.
Major changes to voucher programs would require legislative action. The new superintendent will write budget proposals for education funding and can issue guidance on a number of issues, including pandemic safety, virtual learning, curriculum and teacher licensing.
Follow Rory Linnane on Twitter at @RoryLinnane.