Who wins the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction is important. But probably not because of what you think.
On April 6th, Wisconsinites will choose a new Superintendent. To read the media accounts or listen to the candidates you would think that this is all about the highly charged issue of school choice. It’s not.
In this nominally nonpartisan race, Jill Underly is backed by Democrats and teachers unions. She’s against expanding the state’s voucher program for private schools. Her opponent, Deborah Kerr, is backed by Republicans and supports expansion of vouchers. She claims to have voted for Joe Biden last November.
But here’s the thing. The Superintendent has virtually nothing to say about school choice. Those are policy issues decided by the Legislature and the Governor. And, since those branches of government are split between the parties, not much is likely to change no matter who the next Superintendent is.
The campaigns are also hurling absurd ethics attacks back and forth. Kerr used her official email when she was Superintendent of the Brown Deer school district to make some contacts to potential clients for her consulting business. Underly used her official email from her role as Superintendent of the Pecatonica district to ask colleagues for their personal contact info so that she could contact them about her campaign. Neither transgression is the crime of the century. This is penny ante stuff.
So, if both candidates are qualified and ethically sound and school choice is a mirage of an issue, why does it matter who gets elected? Because the winner will get an automatic seat on the Board of Regents and that, in turn, could decide which party controls that body.
If you’re like me, and you think the Governor (any governor) should get to run the second biggest agency in the state, then you’ll vote for Underly. If you think it’s better for the opposition party to serve as a brake there, you might vote for Kerr.
In truth, we shouldn’t be voting for anybody. This shouldn’t be an elected position at all. It makes no sense to elect the person leading the state’s education agency when we don’t elect the heads of the departments of transportation or natural resources or corrections. This should be a governor’s cabinet level appointment.
But it is, as they say, what it is. The decision matters, not because this position makes much significant policy in the job itself, but because they will make a big difference in how the UW is governed.