The race begins: Wisconsin will elect a new State Superintendent-See where they stand on the most important issues

When the current Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, Carolyn Stanford Taylor, announced that she would not run for election when her term expires in 2021, it became clear that for the first time in 20 years, Wisconsin would have an open election for this important Constitutional office. Thus far, two experienced educators have declared their intentions to run for this high office: Sheila Briggs, currently serving in Carolyn Stanford Taylor’s cabinet as Assistant State Superintendent for the Division of Academic Excellence, and Jill Underly, currently serving as the Superintendent in the Pecatonica school district. If no other candidates decide to run for this office, there will not be a primary in February, 2021. If one or more candidates do join the race, then the top two vote getters for this non-partisan office, will face off in April, 2021.

As a long time advocate for equitable education for all children, I have worked with and against the past four State Superintendents, dating back to John Benson’s tenure which started in 1993, followed by Elizabeth Burmaster, Tony Evers and Stanford Taylor, and I have gotten to know Evers and Stanford Taylor quite well. As a civil rights attorney, I have sued all of them except for Stanford Taylor, on behalf of Wisconsin’s children with disabilities, including a ten year class action against Milwaukee Public Schools and DPI. Unfortunately, my experience and the available data has shown that despite their good intentions, DPI is beholden to school districts, not the students they serve. This is most evident by DPI’s abject failure to bring Wisconsin out of the bottom rung of racial disparities in education. 

After my article on DPI’s unhelpful school reopening guidance was published in the Wisconsin Examiner last month, both Sheila Briggs and Jill Underly contacted me to discuss their thoughts on the pressing issue of schools reopening during a pandemic. What follows is the result of my conversations with them on that issue and other critical education issues, which voters should consider when they cast their ballots for the next State Superintendent.

If the pandemic continues when you take office, how will you advise school districts and all education stakeholders?

Briggs:

“By that time, we will have an entire year of learning about what worked and what did not work regarding educating our children during a pandemic. DPI is currently conducting interviews with students, teachers and administrators to learn what worked and did not work during the spring. Those interviews will inform what we continue and I would change if I am elected.

The stakes are very high and we know we have kids whose needs are not being met and the pandemic and on-line learning have exacerbated that. We need to know who we’re meeting the needs of and who we’re not. This is our opportunity to rethink everything we’re doing.

Fortunately, educators are being open and honest about what actually worked better and what they will continue to do after the pandemic is over, like video introductions to the next lesson. As a profession, we need to look for these types of things. This will lead us to consider what needs to change in education forever moving forward.”

Underly:

Underly says she always leads with what she knows and in this case that means: test, trace, and isolate. As a district Superintendent, she says that she is currently implementing protocols to achieve those goals. Further, she says that she always goes with best practices: in this case, that means social distancing, mask wearing, testing, and contact tracing.

She would advocate for additional funds for all the things we know are working and to invest in the things we have cut, such as high speed internet, early childhood education, mental health, and special education.

She empathizes with the difficulties DPI faced in its recently released “Education Forward” guidance on school reopening. Underly says that, “We need to develop protocols, and flow-charts, or implementation guidelines on what school should look like this fall. For example, what if you are fully open and there is a spike in cases in your community or in your school? We need coherence. Otherwise parents are going to shop between districts to find one with a model that suits their needs best. I was hoping for a more definitive direction from DPI, but I understand why they went with the guidance as they did.” 

Finally, Underly is concerned that we need to protect our most vulnerable children, including those who receive special education, and English Language Learners. She happens to be a parent of a child with special needs, which informs her experience. She insists that, “We need to do better for all kids.”

  • How will you close the various long standing achievement gaps?

Underly:

First, she acknowledges that the gaps will be worse due to the pandemic, including special education gaps, internet gaps, and whether there is a parent at home and engaged gaps.

Then, she asks, “Are we spending money on the things we know work to close the gaps?”

Underly asserts that she is about “every kid, every day.” She looks at achievement gaps as opportunity gaps. She wants to address those opportunity gaps, including racism, and discrimination.

“Every kid deserves a high quality pre-school experience. Research shows this helps no matter the deficits the child comes from. But currently, this is only afforded to parents who can afford it.”

“Every child deserves access to great teachers.” But, she knows that, “teaching is unequal throughout the state.”

She reports that her small district invests and trains new teachers but then a wealthier school district snaps them up because they can pay more. There are also statewide shortages in math and science teachers because they enter industry for higher pay.

Underly believes that every child deserves access to guidance counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals due to the many traumas they experience. As State Superintendent, she would advocate for more funding for these priorities. Her top priority is special education funding, which frees up resources for all students.

If elected, she would recommend that districts put together a needs assessment based on their school report card by district and by building. Then, she wants districts to identify gaps, and come up with an action plan for spending available resources to address those gaps.

In terms of looking for solutions, she believes that, “We need to start treating our teachers as the experts that they are. We can still make it a local decision, but there has to be a demonstration of local need and how it will be addressed.”

Briggs:

Briggs believes that we need to reevaluate our systems from top to bottom, starting at DPI. This includes the need to diversify staff there, as well as its councils and advisory groups. This is because, “We can’t use a homogenous group to try and build new systems. We need different voices and perspectives.”

Briggs goes on to assert that, “We need to diversify our education workforce. One strategy is to create more high school educators rising programs to encourage students of color to be the teacher they never had.” She also believes that school districts need to be creative in where they look for our future teachers. 

For example, she supports hiring willing parents of color as tutors and supporting them to become teachers. She supports recruiting and supporting Special Education Aids and Bilingual Resource Support staff to become teachers.

Briggs believes that, “We must work with educator preparation programs to inspire more students of color to become teachers.” She is concerned that currently, “they are not always welcoming spaces for teachers or administrators of color because there is institutional racism and bias throughout the system.”

She supports recruiting staff of color from out of state in cohorts so they have some additional support among one another. She also believes that DPI needs to work with communities so staff of color feel safe.

Briggs would like to create incentives for school districts to diversify staff. While she supports looking for private funding as she has done for several projects, she also believes the legislature needs to put funding towards building the teacher pipeline and diversifying our educator workforce. 

  • Given that DPI does not have the power of the purse, and must execute the laws enacted by the legislature, how will you work with the legislature?

Briggs:

Politics was a new part of her job when she became Asst. State Superintendent. Now that she is immersed in working with the legislature as part of her job, Briggs enjoys talking to legislators and explaining and advocating for DPI’s goals and strategies. She believes that she has productive relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle and is able to explain what kids need. She looks forward to doing more of this if elected.

Briggs believes that it helps to have partners and stakeholders in the community that can advocate in the legislature to support our schools through DPI’s initiatives.

Finally, she asserts that education should not be seen as partisan.

Underly:

She believes that she already has an excellent track record working with the legislature as a public school advocate and with Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN).

In her current position as a district Superintendent, she confronts a diverse set of people on her school board in terms of politics and values, but she knows that all her board members want great schools.

Like Briggs, she believes that public education should be on the forefront as a non-partisan issue.

Underly was one of the main authors for CESA 3 for the Wisconsin Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. She believes that she is very visible and that most legislators who care about education know who she is and that she has a good reputation with them.

Recently, she testified on behalf of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Association as an invited speaker to the Assembly Education Committee regarding educating students during the pandemic.

Finally, she points out that her district has passed a referendum while she has been Superintendent in 2016 and that it passed with 75% approval.

  • Since Wisconsin clearly needs a different approach to remedy the many ills in its education system, how will you be a different Superintendent than your predecessors?

Underly:

Underly mentions that she was selected by Tony Evers to introduce him when he announced running for Governor. She considers herself to be friends with Gov. Evers, Superintendent Stanford Taylor and Sheila Briggs.

She states that, “It has been some time that anyone in the DPI cabinet has run a school district or been in a school.” As for herself, she “would come into the job having run a school district and that she has been doing so since 2015.”

Underly notes that she is working with all stakeholders every day and she is very much in touch with those needs.  She runs a rural school district which brings a different perspective.

Moreover, she is not just listening to people. She is talking to people, taking ideas, and implementing them into her district’s reopening plan. If elected, she “will use the feedback of all stakeholders in the way that DPI can implement things.” She will also use parent advisory councils, and “use teachers better in terms of their experience in the classroom before rolling things out of DPI because DPI needs to value parent and teacher feedback.” She supports  using on-line tools to get more feedback from more voices.

Prior to becoming a district superintendent, she was very active in her union and while a member, she regularly provided input to it.

Finally, she notes that she has kids in school and one with special needs, so she sees kids’ perspective first hand and what they experience is very real to her.

Briggs:

Briggs believes that she, “has been incredibly lucky to be at the cabinet table under both Superintendents Evers and Stanford Taylor.” But, she goes on to state that “every Superintendent leads in their own way, and I’ll be different. I’ve had experience closing gaps when I worked in an urban school district, and have had results with the work I’ve been leading at the state.  It’s time we take that success statewide. ”

Her top priority will be how to close opportunity gaps, and she acknowledges that, “Wisconsin hasn’t been successful in doing that.” She asserts that she will be different from her predecessors “because together we’re finally going to move the needle on this.  We have to.”

Briggs reports that her leadership style is to listen to lots of constituents. She says that she is, “not satisfied to listen only to the head of an organization.  While those leaders are important, it is also important to listen to a wide variety of voices.”

She does a lot of listening to people in the field. She takes all the evidence and research and focuses on what the Department will move forward on. 

Briggs believes that DPI needs to be clear on what its focus is and to focus on what is working to close gaps with incentives and funding.

Finally, she believes that, “there are things that DPI has to draw the line on when things are not working, and to use mandates or directives when kids are being harmed or not getting their needs met.” However, she states that she is not an autocratic leader, but notes that, “we can’t continue to say we care about equity and allow our state to have the biggest achievement gap in the country. We can’t continue to leave so much to chance.”

After lengthy conversations with these education leaders who both seek to become Wisconsin’s top educator, I am cautiously optimistic that they will indeed, provide new direction to DPI, to help Wisconsin overcome a long sad history of failing to adequately educate our students in greatest need. Democracy is best served when there are multiple high quality candidates for voters to choose from, and in this instance, that appears to be the case.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact me,  Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting my web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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