With the Backing of Teachers Unions, Underly Wins Wisconsin Superintendent

Published on: April 15, 2021

By: Will Flanders and Libby Sobic

For many years, Wisconsin has reserved the position of state superintendent of schools for someone steeped in union politics and promising the status quo. But over the past year, COVID-19 has turned many such situations on their heads and polarized politics in a way never seen before. The superintendent election that took place across Wisconsin last week was not excused from the COVID-effect. For once in a long while, the status quo candidate—Jill Underly—faced a very serious challenge from Debb Kerr who, for focusing on getting students back in the classroom and promising to treat all school sectors equally, became the reform candidate overnight.  Unfortunately for Wisconsin students, Underly prevailed. But the race exposed a growing schism on the left around the issue of education reform.

In the primary, Underly garnered support from the teachers unions by expressing her skepticism on school choice, and proposing a freeze on the programs that would effectively eliminate the option for countless kids around the state. Kerr supported working with the voucher and charter sectors, and viewing all sectors as part of a broader team working to improve educational outcomes for Wisconsin students.

In the past it was possible on the national level and in Wisconsin to receive support from the teachers unions while also allowing school choice. For instance, Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, a supporter of education reform in its most tepid forms,  endorsed Kerr in the last week before the election. However, these Democrats are finding themselves increasingly ostracized from the party’s mainstream when forced to address educational issues. For instance, Duncan’s endorsement of Kerr quickly led to a tweet from Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan claiming that Duncan was a “bad” Secretary of Education for supporting options like charter schools. Pocan also called voucher supporters a “cult.”

But it seems in some ways, Pocan is forgetting what Duncan’s legacy actually was. Duncan led the U.S. Department of Education when it aggressively investigated private school choice programs for discrimination based on scant evidence. Ironically, it was Wisconsin’s superintendent race that is drawing to light the schism in the Democrat party on education—and not Secretary Duncan’s seven years of service at the head of the U.S. Department of Education.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden argued that school choice would “destroy public schools.” And Wisconsin politics have mirrored national politics this year, in so far as it seems that it is no longer possible to survive as a moderate. In other words, even moderate school choice support has become anathema to the mainstream Democratic Party.  For instance, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin endorsed Underly in the ostensibly non-partisan race.

Unfortunately, the latest evidence from Wisconsin suggests that we still have a long way to go.  Underly’s victory means that the status quo of opposition to anything that can’t garner support from teachers unions will continue to be the overriding principle in the state superintendent’s office. Yet national trends suggest a new path forward will eventually be required.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, educational choice is becoming more popular with families across the country. A generation of parents have seen that teachers unions aren’t there to serve the best interests of their kids—keeping schools closed in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that reopening was safe.  It is a time for choosing for those on the left: Will they rejoin the educational choice movement that many helped found or continue to serve as an obstacle in the face of serious reform?

Flanders is research director and Sobic is director of education policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.