MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The race to become Wisconsin's top education official that is open for the first time in more than a decade pits a rural superintendent backed by the teachers' union and Democrats against a retired suburban Milwaukee superintendent who praised the Act 10 collective bargaining law and has the support of Republicans.

Pecatonica Superintendent Jill Underly and former Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr meet April 6 in the race to become superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction. The winner will replace Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who took over as state superintendent in 2019 but declined to seek a full term.

The election will also decide two open seats in the Legislature that were previously held by Republicans.

The next schools chief will take over at a time when schools are opening more fully as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to ease, there’s continued competition for limited state funding, and there are ongoing struggles to close the achievement gap.

The race is officially nonpartisan, but conservatives, including former Gov. Scott Walker, have largely lined up behind Kerr. Underly has the backing of every Democratic member of the state’s congressional delegation, former Gov. Jim Doyle and more than two dozen current or former Democratic members of the state Legislature.

Kerr has run as a strong advocate of the state's private school voucher program and of fully opening the state's public schools to in-person learning five days a week. She's also advocating for dismantling the state education department, moving it out of Madison, and opening offices across the state.

Underly wants to freeze enrollment in voucher schools, while positioning herself as carrying on the legacy of former state superintendents who have won the support of teachers, Democrats and much of the public education community.

Outside money is pouring into the race, mostly from liberal groups backing Underly. They are outspending conservatives supporting Kerr by a 13-to-1 margin, based on a tally by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.

The liberal group A Better Wisconsin Together, the statewide teachers union, Wisconsin Education Association Council, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin have spent more than $766,000 to support Underly or oppose Kerr. The American Federation for Children, a pro-school voucher group, has spent $56,500 to oppose Underly, the Democracy Campaign said.

Even though Kerr calls herself a “pragmatic Democrat” who voted for Joe Biden, she has pivoted since coming in second behind Underly in the February primary to a more conservative message focusing on her call to fully reopen schools. She has accused Underly of being in the pocket of the state teachers union.

The change in messaging came after Kerr's former campaign manager and legal counsel quit in late February. They left after Kerr, who is white, tweeted that she had been called a racial slur for Black people when she was 16 because “my lips were bigger than most and that was the reference given to me.” She later deleted her Twitter account and apologized.

The race has been contentious in recent weeks, with reports of Kerr using her public school district email during work hours last year to set up her private consulting firm and Underly sending her children to a private school, rather than a low-performing Madison public school, when she previously worked for the state education department.

Underly, in a television ad, said Kerr can’t be trusted because she tried to cover up a financial scandal at the Brown Deer district more than a decade ago.

Kerr kept the district’s business manager on the payroll for 17 months after he overdrew the Brown Deer school district’s bank accounts by nearly $500,000. Kerr later wrote a letter of recommendation for the business manager when he sought another job.

Kerr has defended her handling of the situation, saying she launched an investigation as soon as she became aware of problems.

The state superintendent oversees education policy in Wisconsin, which includes managing a variety of programs, dispersing grant money to schools and overseeing teacher licensing. The superintendent’s powers are limited and must implement the laws as passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by the governor.

Conservatives have been unsuccessful in running partisan candidates for the state superintendent position. For the past 20 years, the conservative candidate in the race has been beaten by double digits. In 2017, then-incumbent state secretary Tony Evers won by 40 points. Evers was elected governor in 2018 and his successor decided against seeking a full term. Evers had been the state superintendent since 2009.

In the legislative races, Republican state Rep. John Jagler, of Watertown, faces Democrat Melissa Winker for the 13th Senate district vacated by Scott Fitzgerald when he was elected to Congress in November. Jagler was first elected to the Assembly in 2012. Winker previously ran for Assembly in 2018 and 2020 but lost.

In the 89th Assembly District, which includes the city of Marinette. Republican Elijah Behnke faces Democrat Karl Jaeger. Behnke owns a cleaning business and is a former youth pastor, while Jaeger ran for the seat in 2020 and lost. That seat was open after Republican John Nygren resigned from the Legislature.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: