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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Seven candidates will be on the ballot in the February 16 non-partisan primary election for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, including Colfax native Troy Gunderson.
The two candidates who receive the most votes in the February 16 primary will be on the ballot for the April 6 spring election.
Gunderson, of West Salem, attended Colfax Public Schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade and is the son of Sharon and Del Gunderson of Colfax.
During an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio February 2, Gunderson noted he has had a career in public education for 35 years, that his mother is a teacher, his wife is a teacher and his father-in-law is a teacher.
A certain number of Colfax Messenger readers will recall being in Sharon Gunderson’s home-economics class at Colfax High School.
“Every opportunity in my lifetime is somehow connected to public education,” Gunderson said, adding that now is the time “to step up to the plate and give something back.”
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Gunderson was a classroom teacher at Melrose-Mindoro High School for seven years and then served 16 years as a high school principal, one year at Princeton and 15 years at West Salem.
He went on to serve as school superintendent for 12 years, including two years at Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District in Galesville and served for 10 years as superintendent at the School District of West Salem. He currently serves as an adjunct professor of school finance for the superintendent certification program at Viterbo University in La Crosse.
During the WPR interview, one of the questions focused on how students would be able to get caught up after the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Summer school would be one opportunity to help students catch up, Gunderson said.
The state Department of Public Instruction can help by collecting data to assess the emotional and academic impact of the pandemic and then develop a plan to move forward, he said.
Another question focused on how to change the funding formula for education.
Wisconsin has been too reliant on property taxes to fund education, Gunderson said.
Equalization aid formulas have been frozen for years, so school districts began to rely on referendum questions, which when passed, then also add to the local property taxes, he said.
Some children are “more expensive” to educate than others, such as special education students, English language learners, those with mental health issues and homeless students, he said.
Education funding has not been directed where it should be. The state has put money into the school voucher program, but the private schools are not as competent as public schools in many areas, Gunderson said.
Not all school districts are the same, and more funding should be distributed to school districts with a higher percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, for example, he said.
Rural districts also need more help financially because they are unable to provide services in the same way wealthier urban districts can provide services, Gunderson said.
Another candidate on the February 16 primary ballot for state superintendent will be Sheila Briggs.
Briggs, who also was interviewed on WPR on February 2, is an assistant state superintendent in the Division of Academic Excellence at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Briggs started out as a kindergarten teacher then served as a principal and eventually became an administrator in the Madison school system overseeing 32 elementary schools.
Wisconsin must stop chasing test scores, must stop demonizing teachers and must recognize that public school funding “is not working” and must mitigate the teacher shortage, she said.
Briggs also spoke about reforming the state’s education funding formulas, recognizing that some students are more expensive to educate than others, and that the state should fully fund public schools and stop funding private voucher schools.
When special education is not fully funded, then school districts shift money from other programs, which ends up taking funding away from the rest of the students in the school district, she said.
According to the state constitution, public schools must be fully funded, Briggs noted.
Voucher schools have been around for several decades, but “we are not seeing the results,” she said.
Joe Fenrick has taught science at Fond du Lac High School for 15 years. He has served three terms on the Fond du Lac County Board and is chair of the county board’s social services committee.
He also is a geology lecturer at UW-Oshkosh.
“As the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will make it a priority to create partnerships and help further the education of children. These opportunities can and will exist in all of our communities and all over the states,” according to Fenrick’s website.
“My campaign is not just about my vision, it’s about including you in building a better future for our kids,” he said.
“On Zoom, I met with leaders of Education Associations all across the state and discussed the importance of teaching our students skills that are not found on standardized tests. Reading, writing and arithmetic are extremely important, but more skills are needed for our children to be successful in the future,” Fenrick said.
At a state superintendent forum, according to Fenrick’s website, he spoke about the need for addressing the increase in children’s mental stress, the problem of bullying and the need for affordable broadband internet access everywhere in the state.
Deborah Kerr is the former superintendent of the Brown Deer school district.
During an interview on WPR January 26, Kerr spoke about the achievement gaps in Wisconsin that have been made worse by the pandemic and that school districts are “losing ground” in educational programming.
The virus can be mitigated, and the risk can be mitigated, and those students who have been out of school for 12 months “will be in recovery for a long time,” Kerr said.
One of the positive aspects of the pandemic is that learning can happen at any time and does not have to be constrained by the school calendar. Summer school can also be an opportunity to help kids catch up, she said.
School funding formulas must be updated. Increasing funding for special education would free up money in school districts that could be used for other educational programming, Kerr said.
Increasing access to broadband also is vital for education, she said.
Steve Krull is the principal at Garland Elementary in Milwaukee.
The generations coming up will not be doing as well as their parents economically, and it is partially due to the education system, Krull said during an interview on WPR January 29.
Wisconsin used to be well-known for its education system and was at the top of the list, he noted.
If the education reforms of the last 30 years had actually been successful, there would not be a teacher shortage now, there would not be an achievement gap, school districts would not have terminated their vocational education programs and would not have broadband and transportation issues, Krull said.
The pandemic has spotlighted issues with education. Some students are in classes of 15, and some students are in classes of 45. Classes with 45 students are not able to the use of safety measures that can be used in classes of 15, such as physical distancing, he said.
Schools must teach innovation, problem solving and critical thinking. Structural reform for finances would help students “catch up.” Some schools have twice the amount of state aid as other schools. The funding differences indicate that the state values some kids more than others, Krull said.
Schools should have a “basic standard of care” so that class sizes are uniform around the state, and all schools should have enrichment programs, he said.
The achievement gap from racial and economic disparities results in an “opportunity gap,” Krull said.
Dr. Shandowlyon (Shawn) Hendricks-Williams serves as the Assistant Director of the Teacher Education, Professional Development and Licensing team at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
According to Dr. Hendricks’ campaign website, all students should have developmentally appropriate early childhood experiences and the opportunity to eliminate achievement gaps. Classes essential for all students include art, music, physical education, computer science, library media, health, language, civics, financial literacy and economics.
For parents, schools should elevate home-based parental involvement and should create innovative opportunities for school-based parental involvement beyond fundraising. Every school should have a parent and family coordinator. And parents should receive a $350 rebate for expenses associated with virtual learning during the pandemic.
For teachers, the teaching profession should be elevated and teacher pay increased. A diverse teacher workforce should be developed, recruited and retained. Teachers also should have more time for assessing student performance, collaboration planning and professional development.
According to her website, Dr. Hendricks believes a task force should be developed for school funding reform, special education services should be fully funded, and school aid should be adjusted to fix the inequity in education for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners and rural students.
Jill Underly is the superintendent of the Pecatonica school district.
During an interview on WPR January 29, Underly said she is running for state superintendent because she wants to disrupt the inequity in school systems.
The opportunity gap must be addressed. More early childhood and birth-to-three programs are needed, the mental health professional shortage must be addressed, and the teacher shortage, which resulted after a decade of austerity cuts to education funding, must be addressed, Underly said.
Taxpayers should ask harder questions. The state spends more than $350 million on school vouchers, which was an expense that did not exist in 1993. Schools also have technology costs now that did not exist in 1993, she said.
The funding formula should be revised so schools can operate without going to referendum, Underly said.
Underly presumably was referencing the state-imposed revenue limits put into place in 1993 that allow only small increases, or in some cases, no increases, in the property tax levy from year to year. In the years following the implementation of the state-imposed revenue limits, when school officials would talk to state legislators about school funding, the legislators would reply that if a school district did not have enough money to operate, the school district could always go to referendum. In recent years, every election seems to have a record number of school district referendum questions.
When asked about her plan for improving literacy, Underly said school districts must work with the Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESA), and the DPI should work on a cohesive curriculum framework and bring the science of reading to the framework.
As for the pandemic, students who are “well resourced” will be fine, but students in poverty, the English language learners and the special education students, do not have the support they need, she said.