State Superintendent Jill Underly took office earlier this spring, as COVID cases were on the decline and the potential for a semi-normal fall semester seemed possible. Now, as the state contends with the surging Delta coronavirus variant, those hopes have been dashed.
“The past 18 months have tested us in ways we could never have imagined,” Underly said in her first State of Education address today. “We’ve seen how tirelessly our teachers have worked to reinvent their practice and the great lengths they will go to to support our students and their well-being. I could not be prouder of how our educators and school staff have met this moment.”
Elementary students are the last major group of unvaccinated Wisconsinites, as federal health officials haven’t approved vaccines for those under the age of twelve.
And neither Governor Tony Evers nor President Joe Biden have issued a vaccine mandate for teachers. Several Wisconsin teachers’ unions have endorsed such a policy, and the Madison Metropolitan School District is currently working on its staff vaccine mandate, which – if approved – will take effect in November.
“When I visited schools over the past month, I’ve seen students who are so excited to be learning,” Underly said today. “I know masks are a contentious issue in so many of our communities, but the kids didn’t seem bothered. They were willing to do what they needed to do. We could learn a lot from them.”
Underly also critiqued the state’s Republican-held legislature, which she argued doesn’t go far enough to meet schools’ funding needs. As part of the state’s 2021-2023 budget, lawmakers approved $128 million in additional school funding.
That’s less than a tenth of Governor Evers’ initial proposal.
“Wisconsin is still struggling to make up for the cuts made to public education during the Great Recession — despite the fact that over half the U.S. has found a way to do so,” she said. “As a consequence, in 2020, we graduated an entire generation of kids who have known nothing but austerity in our school funding.”
In response to Underly’s critiques, Republican State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wrote in a press release that “Funding for K-12 education in Wisconsin is at historic levels, and this year our schools received a massive amount of one-time federal dollars. The Democrats’ singular focus to push more money into schools isn’t a winning strategy for our kids.”
“Make no mistake, the one-time federal money for COVID-19 relief is not enough,” Underly said in her speech. “It comes with significant strings attached.”
Underly also pointed out that stagnating funding from the state is driving school districts to rely on funding referendums.
Said Underly: “Relying on local referenda only drives inequity, and puts us further away from providing a quality public education to every child in every corner of the state. And frankly, it lets state leaders in this building off the hook from their constitutional obligation to our kids and our schools.”
Underly also called for increased access to mental health support in schools and announced two new task forces: one that will be tasked with finding ways to improve Wisconsin’s civic education programs and one with improving literacy rates.
Underly’s State of Education address comes just a few days before lawmakers vote on a controversial bill on Critical Race Theory.
The bill would ban “race or sex stereotyping in instruction provided to pupils.” Violating that rule would open districts up to lawsuits and even the loss of state financial aid.
The bill received the approval of a legislative committee yesterday, and will be before the full assembly for a vote on Tuesday.
PHOTO: Jonah Chester