The COVID-19 pandemic and our policy responses to it will have long-lasting effects throughout our society. Perhaps none will feel those impacts more severely than the children who were abandoned by our government-educational complex. On April 6, Wisconsin’s voters will choose the next superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction and the choice could not be clearer.
The two candidates to lead the DPI are similar in many respects. Both candidates have spent their careers progressing through schools to leadership positions. Both candidates are highly educated with doctorates in educational leadership. Both candidates are lifelong Democrats and believe that many of the answers to the challenges facing education can be solved with more taxpayer money.
While the two candidates are similar in many respects, it is where they differ that makes Deb Kerr the best choice for our children.
The most pressing issue confronting education right now is the fact that too many government school districts are refusing to return to in-person education despite the overwhelming evidence that it can be done safely. Many schools around the world have remained open throughout the pandemic or only closed for a short time without significant issues. The evidence is clear that COVID-19 is not a significant threat to the vast majority of those in schools — students and staff. Despite this clear evidence, some government school districts refuse to fully open under withering fire from the teachers and their unions. The damage to our kids’ education, mental health, and futures cannot be understated.
On this issue, Dr. Deb Kerr has made it clear that all government schools should reopen immediately. Her opponent, Dr. Jill Underly, is toeing the line of the state teachers union (which has endorsed her and poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into supporting her) in throwing up multiple conditions that must be met before those schools can open. Kerr is following the science and prioritizing kids’ lives and futures. Underly is determined to use the crisis as a political wedge to gain more concessions for the unions.
The second paramount issue on which the candidates differ is on school choice. Here again, Kerr is prioritizing children and their futures while Underly is defending the union’s priorities.
The pandemic pulled back the mask of our state’s education infrastructure to reveal some glaring inequities. Some of the government schools stepped up and responded heroically with a swift and thoughtful shift to virtual learning and an equally swift move back to hybrid and in-person education when the evidence supported it. Other government schools — particularly some of the state’s largest districts that serve economically disadvantaged communities — utterly failed at virtual education and are still resisting a return to in-person education.
The fact that some schools performed better than others through the pandemic is manifest. The powerlessness of some parents to make get their kids into a school that is actually providing an education is a calamity. Some families were able to support their children’s education throughout the pandemic with relative ease. They have the time and money to support a virtual learning environment or move their children to a private or parochial school that is providing a higher-quality education.
Many families, however, are not able to fill the gap left by their failing schools or have the means to send their children to a successful school. When schools have utterly failed at virtual education and refuse to reopen their doors, the parents are left with few choices other than to watch their children slip further into the achievement gap as kids in other districts thrive. This is precisely the problem that school choice helps remedy. School choice provides the financial means for all families to choose the best educational option for their children, whether it be the local government school or a private option. School choice prioritizes children and education over propping up failed government institutions. Deb Kerr is a vocal supporter of school choice and has worked outside of the government school system. While she supports government schools as a vitally important part of our educational system, she recognizes that families need choices when that system fails. Rich families have always had choices. School choice enables poorer families to have the same options.
Jill Underly is a vocal opponent of school choice. She has stated unequivocally that she opposes school choice and would advocate for more regulations of the private schools that participate. Even though Underly chose to send her own children to a local parochial school to avoid an underperforming government school, she would deny that choice to families of lesser financial means.
The pandemic is groaning to an end, but it has highlighted some stark gaps in our government school system. Deb Kerr is the best candidate to begin to close some of those gaps.