Underly, Kerr square off to be Wisconsin education chief

Deborah Kerr, Jill Underly
Pictured (L to R): Deborah Kerr, Jill Underly

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A rural superintendent backed by Democrats faces a retired suburban Milwaukee superintendent largely supported by Republicans in Tuesday’s election to select Wisconsin’s top education official.

Pecatonica Superintendent Jill Underly, who also has the backing of the state teachers union, faces former Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr, a supporter of the private school voucher program, in the race to become secretary of the state Department of Public Instruction.

Turnout is traditionally low in spring elections, usually around 20%.

The race was officially nonpartisan, but Democrats and their money lined up solidly behind Underly while Kerr found support from Republicans, including former Gov. Scott Walker. Kerr ran as a strong supporter of the voucher program, a favorite of conservatives, while Underly is an opponent.

Kerr, 63, pitched herself as bipartisan, saying she was a “pragmatic Democrat” and in the days before the election she won endorsements from Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor and Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary under former President Barack Obama. Kerr taught Duncan when he was in high school in Chicago in the 1980s.

Underly, 43, has the backing of every Democratic member of the state’s congressional delegation, former Gov. Jim Doyle and more than two dozen current or former Democratic members of the state Legislature.

The state superintendent oversees education policy in Wisconsin, which includes dispersing grant money to schools and overseeing teacher licensing.

Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who was superintendent since Tony Evers left the post midterm in 2019 after he was elected governor, declined to seek a full term. Evers had been the head of the state education department for 10 years. The seat was open for the first time in 12 years.

Kerr’s campaign was marked by a series of missteps, most notably when Kerr, who is white, tweeted that she had been called a racial slur for Black people when she was 16 because “my lips were bigger than most and that was the reference given to me.” She apologized, but her campaign manager and attorney quit.

Underly accused Kerr of being transphobic over her support for bills that would prohibit transgender girls from playing on girls sports teams. Underly supporters also attacked Kerr over a 10-year-old financial scandal at her former district. Kerr accused Democrats of attempting to buy the election and said Underly was in the pocket of the teachers union.

Outside groups backing Underly outspent Kerr’s forces nearly 4-to-1 and Underly raised $1.3 million in the last two months of the race compared with just $71,000 for Kerr. The bulk of Underly’s money, $900,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, came from the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

Democrats prioritized the race to avoid a letdown in Wisconsin after President Joe Biden’s narrow victory in November. Liberals have also had a hold on the state superintendent position for decades. For the past 20 years, the conservative candidate in the race has been beaten by double digits.

Also on the ballot were two open state legislative seats in districts previously held by Republicans.

Republican state Rep. John Jagler, of Watertown, faced Democrat Melissa Winker for the 13th Senate district vacated by Scott Fitzgerald when he was elected to Congress in November. Jagler was first elected to the Assembly in 2012. Winker previously ran for Assembly in 2018 and 2020 but lost.

In the 89th Assembly District, which includes the city of Marinette. Republican Elijah Behnke faced Democrat Karl Jaeger. Behnke owns a cleaning business and is a former youth pastor, while Jaeger ran for the seat in 2020 and lost. That seat was open after Republican John Nygren resigned from the Legislature.