History makes the candidate endorsed by the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state teachers union, in a low turnout election the favorite to become the next Superintendent of Public Instruction. Jill Underly, if elected, would extend the state teacher union’s de facto control of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) for another four years.  

Her opponent, Deb Kerr, presents an unusually strong challenge. Kerr has a successful track record, as the former Brown Deer school district superintendent, in reducing racial and economic education gaps — the state’s most serious K-12 problem. She is widely known and well-regarded in education circles. She names as colleagues several educators in the school choice and charter world. In contrast to DPI’s historic hostility to parent education options, Kerr pledges a neutral approach to administering the law.

A key Underly “advantage” is the traditionally low turnout in these races.  As illustrated by a scientific, random sample poll conducted last fall, the WEAC agenda she champions is at odds with public sentiment on several levels.  

The poll of 800 likely Wisconsin voters was conducted in early October by OnMessage Inc., a national firm with an extensive record of measuring public sentiment on education. Highlights are summarized here.  Respondents to the pre-election poll supported Joe Biden over Donald Trump (49-45) and favored a Democratic generic congressional ballot (51-43).

On the supposedly divisive issue of school choice, respondents favor Wisconsin’s programs by a 61-26 margin (12 per cent were uncertain). That support includes backing by 39 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents. 

(WEAC does continuous polling and clearly recognizes the public support. Its website endorsement of Underly and its questions posed to candidates includes NO mention of school choice.)

WEAC and its local affiliates pose a continuing obstacle to school re-opening. By a nearly two-to-one margin (62-33), likely voters favor in-person schooling as an option that should be available to parents. By an even larger margin (70-27), voters say students should be able to transfer to a district with in-person schooling if that is not available in their current district.  

Kerr will be the subject of WEAC smears. She must overcome the organized coalition of WEAC members and supporters. While they don’t reflect general public opinion, they vote. 

Kerr’s campaign will thus hinge on a successful effort to increase turnout over historic levels. The odds are she will win the majority of new voters who cast a ballot.