Betsy DeVos did not succeed in dismantling public education during her four-year tenure as Donald Trump’s secretary of education. That’s because, despite the billionaire campaign donor’s determined efforts, the federal government is not the primary battleground in the fight for the future of our schools. Most of those big battles play out at the state and local levels of government. So, now that she’s on the outs in Washington, DeVos is taking her crusade back to states such as Wisconsin—where she and her allies are conniving to influence Tuesday’s election for state superintendent of public instruction.
The choice is between an ardent advocate for public schools, Jill Underly, and a supporter of the voucher schemes that are favored by DeVos and the billionaire donors who for years have attacked teachers and the unions that represent them, Deborah Kerr.
The Wisconsin fight is the first statewide test of popular sentiment since Democrat Joe Biden replaced Republican Donald Trump as president, in a shift that moved DeVos out of the Department of Education. Technically, this is a nonpartisan race. In reality, the lines are clearly drawn in a state that is one of the most closely divided political battlegrounds in the nation.
Wisconsin voters will decide a classic battle that pits teachers and the unions that represent them against the DeVos-backed American Federation for Children. The federation is aggressively attacking Underly, pouring over $200,000 into an expensive broadcast and digital advertising campaign. At the same time, out-of-state donors who share DeVos’s views have been shoring up Kerr’s campaign, which is endorsed by former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a longtime DeVos ally who earned national attention for his moves to cut funding for public education, divert tax dollars to private schools, and assault the rights of teachers to organize on behalf of fair pay and improved education standards.
“In the 2011–13 state budget, Scott Walker, his political party and their corporate sponsors purposefully defunded our state’s public education system by cutting about $1 billion each year from education, health care, and other basic services,” recalls Ed Sadlowski, a veteran labor organizer and public education advocate who now serves as the executive director of the teachers’ union in the state capital of Madison. “Madison’s public schools are currently funded at the 2012 level (eight years off pace), by the state legislature. Wisconsin public schools are number one in the nation (for the wrong reasons). The completely antiquated public education system in our state remains in crisis for Black students, documented by the persistent academic achievement gap between Black students and their white counterparts.”
Walker got beat in 2018 by Tony Evers, who as the state’s longtime superintendent of public education stood up to the conservative governor and worked with the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers to try to protect schools from the onslaught. But Walker’s allies still control both houses of the gerrymandered state legislature. If Kerr wins, they will have an ally in a key position influencing the debate over education—as will DeVos and the national groups that have worked so hard to influence policies in the states.
It will be a different story if Underly prevails. Her values align with those of Evers and with educators who recognize the need, as Underly says, “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,” explains the candidate, who has decades of experience working as a teacher, administrator, and education consultant with the Department of Public Education. “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 socioeconomic 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.”
The union that Sadlowski works with, Madison Teachers Inc., is enthusiastically backing Underly.
“Underly has distinguished herself as the only candidate who understands the importance of closing the achievement gaps, and the policy changes needed for ensuring strong and vibrant unions as the foundation in the equation,” says Sadlowski. “Systems and structures that provide strong employee protections, positive supports and meaningful voice in decision making are fundamental components in rectifying the persistent moral wrongs in our public education system. Deborah Kerr’s candidacy, her political sponsors, are the very culprits who have exacerbated racism, hatred and bigotry in our state and nation. [A] Kerr victory will send a signal that the health of our state’s democracy, our children’s future, remains in critical condition.”
Sadlowski is right about the threat Kerr poses. The DeVos-backed candidate has run an embarrassingly tone-deaf campaign that earned national headlines for the candidate’s response to a question from Madison Payton, a doctoral candidate in educational policy at New York University who hosts the Race Through Education podcast. “When was the first time someone called you the n-word?” asked Payton in a tweet that, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “sought to engage with Black and brown people who have experienced trauma from whiteness and white supremacy.”
Kerr, who is white, replied, “I was 16 in high school and white—my lips were bigger than most and that was the reference given to me.” She went on to claim, “It made me realize that we are all different and that is the gift we give to one another.”
Kerr’s comments stirred an outcry. Payton said he was “disappointed that a white person, let alone a candidate for a very important position in education would think that it is appropriate to use her experience in this space made for us.” Madison School Board member Savion Castro described Kerr’s tweet as a “perfect example of white educators’ profound failures to understand the isolation, alienation, and disenfranchisement our Black & Brown students’ experience in our education system.”
Kerr’s initial response to the criticism was to block people who objected to her tweet. She then deleted her account.
The uproar seems to have damaged Kerr’s candidacy. But she has remained in the running, with support from Walker and other conservatives, and with infusions of cash from out-of-state supporters of vouchers and foes of unions.
So the stakes are high in Wisconsin, where, Underly says, “there’s massive special interests connected to Betsy DeVos and Scott Walker and Donald Trump that want to take every penny of public funding that they can for private schools, and they don’t care about the kids they are leaving behind. So I’m going to make sure we fight for every kid and not just the kids in the unaccountable voucher system.”