Wisconsin state superintendent candidates slap vouchers with an ‘F’

Wisconsin Dpi

MADISON, Wis. (WKBT) — Candidates for Wisconsin school superintendent took similar positions on how to provide equitable funding for all public schools, and they took the knives regarding vouchers for private schools during a forum Thursday night.

Troy Gunderson 2

Gunderson

“We have to think about the collective common good of our public schools,” said Troy Gunderson, former superintendent of the West Salem and G-E-T school districts. “Vouchers weaken our commitment to public education.”
Gunderson, who retired from his West Salem position in June, said vouchers amount to an “attack on public schools” and create a “financial bailout” for some private school that provide less quality.
Jill Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica School District in southwest Wisconsin, lamented that the state’s contribution to vouchers “funnels $385 million a year away from public schools.”
“What you have is (that is) saying private school students are worth more than public school students, and that’s not right,” said Underly, whose district includes Iowa and Lafayette counties.
Gunderson and Underly are two of seven vying for the seat that Carolyn Stanford Taylor is vacating. Gov. Tony Evers, who had been superintendent for 10 years, named Stanford Taylor as his replacement in the post in 2018, when he was elected governor.
The primary election for the post will take place on Feb. 16, narrowing the field for the spring election on April 6.
The Wisconsin Association for Equity in Funding sponsored the virtual forum, with six candidates participating.
Addressing the issue of equitable funding for rural schools vs. urban, Gunderson said he sees the potential for a renaissance among rural districts, since COVID-19 has demonstrated the ability to work remotely.
“Rural Wisconsin is the backbone of our state,” said Gunderson, who also is an adjunct school finance professor in the superintendent certification program at Viterbo University in La Crosse.
“Schools are the most solid institutions in communities,” he said, adding the need for students to have access to broadband internet.
Deborah Kerr, former superintendent of Brown Deer School District, echoed that need, calling for WiFi on school buses as well as expanded broadband.
“In order for world-class education, all kids have to win,” and that includes rural schools, Kerr said.
Equitable funding for special education students, economically disadvantaged pupils and language education prompted extensive discussion.
“We have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide equitable education,” said Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, former director of Evers’ Milwaukee office.
“We spend $30,000 per prison inmate, and $12,000 per student,” Hendricks-Williams said. “I’m gonna let that sit there for a while.
“What message does that send to our students — you are more valuable if you are in prison,” she said
Underly bemoaned “wide opportunity gaps” between school districts, depending on property tax bases.
Underly and Kerr cited the need to increase pay for teachers in rural schools to encourage them to stay there instead of migrating to higher pay in urban schools.
The candidates in general advocated for increased state reimbursement for special education, English as a second language and economically disadvantaged areas.
“It’s shameful that we provide 30 cents (on the dollar) for special education and 10 cents for languages,” said Sheila Briggs, an assistant superintendent in the state Department of Public Instruction.
The discrepancy doesn’t reflect society’s values, she said, noting that some children need more, and some of those needs cost more.
Calling for at least 60 percent reimbursement for special education, Briggs said, “It’s critically important to be provided.”
Gunderson said many districts, such as West Salem, does not have as much need for special education, while others need more, exacerbating the gap.
Kerr said that, when the reimbursement formula was created, there was only one form of education, public, while private and charter schools now are receiving funds, too.
She urged adjusting the formula to current times to factor in increased reimbursement for children with disabilities.
Steve Krull, principal of Garland Elementary School in Milwaukee and a former Air Force instructor, said proper funding for schools would lead to less crime, fewer unwed pregnancies and less drug use, among other problems.
“If you fund schools well — the way they should be,” millions would be saved with less need for social and health services, Krull said.
Joe Fenrick, a Fond du Lac high school science teacher also running for superintendent had a previous commitment and didn’t participate in the forum.