State superintendent candidates discuss mental health, other education issues at forum

State superintendent candidates Deborah Kerr and Jill Underly met for a conversation centered around questions from Wisconsin students Wednesday. 

The forum was hosted by BadgersVote, a campus-wide initiative working to make voting more accessible to UW-Madison students.

Although the state superintendent position is nonpartisan, the race has brought in millions in campaign donations and the candidates are endorsed by partisan figures. 

Kerr, the former Brown Deer School District Superintendent, is supported by former Gov. Scott Walker. Underly, a consultant and assistant manager at the Department of Public Instruction and Pecatonica School Superintendent, is supported by the state’s teachers union (WEAC), the Wisconsin Democratic Party and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

At the forum, the candidates answered questions regarding health and safety, mental health, the Foundations of Reading Test — which is meant to test teachers’ abilities to teach reading — taxpayer dollars used for private schools, distribution of funds to public schools, the safety of Native American students and their reactions to the recent attacks on Asian American lives.

The conversation began with opening statements from each candidate. Kerr began her remarks, but was not able to finish her statement due to internet issues.

“I’m running for state superintendent because every child every day should have access to a great public education,” Underly said. “And it must be affordable; that’s the other piece of it. Because it does provide a solid foundation that will set all of us up, including and especially our youngest kids, for success.”

The candidates had differing opinions on the issues, including the FORT licensing requirement, which teachers and reading specialists must pass before earning their teacher’s license. Underly explained that she would like to entirely suspend the FORT and focus on other methods, such as early literacy interventions and programming.

“I do believe in the Foundations of Reading Test because it’s an accountability measure and right now Wisconsin has the worst achievement gap in the nation, for the last ten years, in reading between Black and white kids,” Kerr said.

This forum is not the only time Kerr and Underly have disagreed. At another forum Thursday, Underly said Kerr was transphobic because she supports bills in Wisconsin that would prohibit transgender girls from playing for girl’s and women’s sports teams. 

Kerr also faced criticism for a racially insensitive tweet on the night of the primary election. Her campaign manager and legal counsel resigned following Kerr’s tweet.

In response to a question regarding higher rates of mental health disorders and supporting students through them, Kerr explained that she wished to start seeing more honest and open conversations, ending the stigma of mental health and employing more people in schools whom students and staff members can trust enough to talk to. 

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Underly’s methods for support included restorative justice, peer-to-peer mentoring or mediation to work through relationships, more social-emotional curriculum and screen breaks and a  consistent ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, regardless of the age group. She said that the state does not have enough counselors right now, especially for younger children.

The candidates will face off on Tuesday, April 6. The election also includes local races, including the races for District 8 and District 2 alder. 

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Janelle B. Smith

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