Pecatonica Area School District Superintendent Jill Underly has a clear vision for improving public education in Wisconsin, and she is uniquely qualified to implement that vision.
Underly, who finished first in a crowded Feb. 16 primary for the open schools post, now faces an April 6 general election contest with a significantly less impressive contender, former Brown Deer Schools superintendent Deb Kerr. It is not a close call. Underly is the right choice, and she runs with our strongest endorsement.
In many senses, Underly has spent a lifetime preparing to take charge of the state Department of Public Instruction — an important post at any time but an especially vital one at a point when Wisconsin is wrestling with a host of public education challenges: reopening and renewing schools in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, addressing systemic racism and inequality, reforming broken funding formulas and undoing the damage done by former Gov. Scott Walker’s unrelenting assault on schools, teachers and their unions.
Underly started as a classroom teacher. She has taught U.S. history, Midwestern history, world history, government, geography and sociology. She has been a school department chair, a softball coach and a student council advisor. She has been an elementary school principal and a school district administrator.
Underly worked for a number of years as an education consultant with the state Department of Public Education, the agency she has now seeks to lead. And she’s served as a senior student coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, relevant experience because the state superintendent serves on the UW Board of Regents.
We could go on, but readers get the point. She’s highly experienced.
Experience only matters, however, if it is linked to an understanding of what must be done to achieve progress. It is Underly’s vision that makes her such an exciting contender for the state’s top education job.
Underly says she is running in order to “to disrupt the systems of inequity that plague our public schools.”
“We have inequity and that translates to what people commonly call ‘achievement gaps.’ However, when we call it an achievement gap we put the onus or blame on the lack of achievement on our kids,” Underly has said. “In reality, it is not our children’s fault that they live in a state or within a system that penalizes them for where they live, their ZIP code, who their parents are, or what their race, gender or socio-economic status is. What we have are opportunity gaps. There are children in our state who are afforded more opportunities and they will achieve more as a result.”
Underly wants to equalize opportunity for all students, and she is serious about her assertion that “all means all.” She’s got specific plans to support students of color, LGBTQ+ students and staff, and deaf and hard of hearing students. She wants to implement those plans and to back them up with equity audits to make sure they are working — and when they are not working, to fine tune them.
At the heart of Underly’s approach is her commitment to what the school administrator calls “game-changers that can disrupt these systems of inequity and afford all children the opportunities that will set them up for a lifetime of success.” She says she wants to work for:
· Fully funded early childhood programming that is full-day and every day, and is high-quality and assured to give all children the start they need to be successful.
· Teacher recruitment and retention, particularly in rural and urban areas, that brings the best and brightest into our schools and values them.
· Mental health support and resources for our students, particularly during the aftermath of a pandemic when there is so much trauma.
· A revision of our school finance system.
That focus on school financing is essential, after years of damage done by Walker and his legislative allies — with outright cuts, plots to divert tax dollars to private schools and assaults on the rights of teachers to organize on behalf of improved educational standards and policies. Underly knows making the change will not be easy. But she says this initiative “will be my highest priority during my tenure. We need a school finance formula that works for all public schools in Wisconsin.”
With a governor who shares her values, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Underly will be able to work closely with the executive branch of state government. And, with her experience as a rural school administrator, Underly knows how to reach out to both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature.
Unlike Kerr, who is supported by Walker and his allies, and who has stumbled repeatedly as a candidate, Jill Underly has the background and the plan to achieve great things for Wisconsin’s students, teachers and communities. We encourage voters to give her an enthusiastic mandate on April 6.