One-on-one: State Superintendent gives expectations for upcoming school year

NBC15's Leigh Mills sat down with the State Superintendent to talk about the upcoming year and her concerns for schools around the state.
Published: Sep. 6, 2022 at 2:18 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV)- State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly spoke about the upcoming school year and her concerns for schools around the state as we come out of the pandemic.

Leigh Mills: We spoke a year ago and now here we are again, and you’re heading into your second year as state Superintendent of Public Instruction. How did last year go, lessons learned and what is your plan as you head into this new school year?

Dr. Underly: Yeah, absolutely. Time sure flies, doesn’t it? When you think about new school years, it’s really exciting. There’s all this optimism, you know, kids getting on the bus, parents are like, ‘yes.’

Leigh: ‘Back to my routine!’ right?

Dr. Underly: And you know, just everything that goes along with that. I mean teachers are excited to be back. We have learned a lot from last year. You know, I think the the thing is I just want us to stay optimistic that we will be able to proceed as normal as possible with this school year, but the things to keep in mind is that even before the pandemic, things weren’t all that great.

So we want to make sure that we come out of this pandemic better. And so that’s what we’re pushing for here at the State Department is to make sure that we have some things in place so that we can make sure that our kids and our schools and our teachers are all successful next year.

Leigh Mills: OK, things weren’t all that great. Expand on it. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Underly: Well, when you think about before the pandemic, we were already experiencing some issues with the teacher pipeline. So, for example, not as many people were going into teaching and so we were already struggling with some of the aftermath of Act 10, for example, teachers were already demoralized.

There were issues with pay not keeping up with, you know, private sector or similar experience in education. We had a lot of mental health issues, our school funding formula. It isn’t in the greatest shape either. Our schools are struggling, our kids are struggling, our teachers are struggling and that was pre-pandemic.

After the pandemic, again, how do we come out of that better? It just really exacerbated a lot of the issues.

Leigh Mills: You hit on so many things that I want to talk about, so we’ll kind of go issue by issue, and let’s just start with the pandemic. Is COVID still a concern for you?

Dr. Underly: I think it always will be a concern until it’s no longer around, but I don’t think that’s realistic. So I think we just have to take some common sense measures that we have put into place.

Even before there was COVID, when I was a Superintendent, you would get rotavirus or you’d get flu outbreaks in your school and you just had to manage that and, you know, do extra cleaning, you know, precautionary measures. And I feel that that’s how we’re going to have to start taking COVID going forward, follow the guidance from the CDC, do those kinds of things.

I can’t ever project how it’s going to impact us, but I think if we take those measures and we’re cautious and careful, I think we could, you know, we can mitigate as many as possible.

Leigh Mills: Let’s talk about the lasting impact of the pandemic. You mentioned mental health. We know that that’s a bigger focus and concern now for families and districts.

We also know that some kids are behind in academics. We talked about the COVID slide last August in my in our conversation. But I remember you mentioned that you believed that learning would still happen, it just might not be at the pace we expect. And I looked at the numbers, we don’t have this spring’s testing, but we can look now at 2019 compared to 2021 and the difference is pretty small. It’s slightly lower. I looked at the 50th percentile. I mean, maybe six points lower for 3rd grade, for example.

So I think you actually hit the nail on the head with your projection last year. Now that we have another year under our belts, and we think about the lasting impact of the pandemic, what do you see as that impact?

Dr. Underly: Yeah, I think it’ll be similar. I think it’ll be incremental gains. I think we need to take into account the big picture of all that goes into learning.

First of all, kids want to learn. They will learn. They have interests, they have passions, and they’re going to pursue them.

You know, but when we look at the, the skills that teachers are able to, you know, deliver to students through instruction, we have to really look at the impact that we may not expect from not having very experienced individuals in front of kids.

So when you look at issues like the teacher shortage, what impact will that have on learning going forward? When you don’t have a qualified adult in front of your kids, what impact will that have on what they learn when we look at the lack of resources our schools are able to put into the classrooms?

Whether it’s through technology, curriculum, materials or even salaries of the individuals, when we’re not getting those resources from the state to put into our classrooms, what impact will that have on our kids learning going forward? So it’s really a myriad of different things like we discussed the pandemic had really exacerbated things.

So it’s going to be difficult to kind of parse out what’s an impact on learning that was directly related to a virus versus what’s the impact on learning based on all these other factors?

Leigh Mills: Are you worried about catching kids up?

Dr. Underly: I am, but I’m not. I think, like I said, you know, kids are going to learn and our schools are on it. I have all the confidence in our school district leaders and our teachers and all the support educators that are there to make sure that our kids are learning.

I have confidence in our parents to stay on top of this as well.

What I’m less confident in is making sure that we have the resources in the schools that need it the most, things like mental health, things that mitigate the impact of poverty, meals, making sure that we have enough salary in our schools so that they’re able to keep people on staff.

Leigh Mills: I hear what you’re saying. I don’t want this to become political, but we are looking at a midterm election and there is a gubernatorial component there.

Education is going to be a big focus of the election. Funding, you’ve laid out your concerns there. School choice is another one we’ve heard come up. I just want to give two examples. Governor Evers in the spring vetoed a package of bills on education. One of them specifically would have raised the income limit I believe for those for the school choice. And just so people understand, we’re talking about using taxpayer money or state funding for children to go to private schools in that scenario.

Then on the flip side you have Tim Michels, who now has the Republican nomination. And he has said that he will immediately put in an expanded school voucher program.

As the leader of schools across our state what would you add to this conversation, or what would you say to parents as they are considering who they’re going to vote for in November?

Dr. Underly: Yeah, well, I’m the leader of the Department of Public Instruction, and my focus has always been on the public school kids, 860,000 public school kids in the state of Wisconsin who reach in every corner.

Every community, from our smallest school in Washington Island and to some of the farm schools out in southwest Wisconsin, all the way out to our largest schools. OK? And what I would say is that what does your public school mean to you? Whether or not you have kids in your school or not? What does that public school mean to your community? What does it mean to you as an adult now who hopefully was a beneficiary of that school? What does it mean to the kids and the grandkids? Or the nieces and nephews or neighbors that you have, and we have to keep funding that system because that’s the, that’s the ticket, that’s the ticket to economic prosperity in Wisconsin.

Public schools are the ticket to better health and our stronger communities and if we continue to defund our public schools and siphon that dollar that, those dollars, those taxpayer dollars to private enterprises? What will that mean for your public school in its viability? It won’t last. And that’s what’s scary about when we talk about making public schools political.

Public schools should be completely apolitical. They’re nonpartisan, and they’re for everybody. And we have to support that and we have to reinvest in that system, otherwise that system will go away.

Leigh Mills: How much money are we talking that you feel we need as a state plugged back in to fund our schools? Is there a dollar amount or a way to kind of satisfy the concern about funding?

Dr. Underly: Well, there have been lots of reports on what dollar amount would be sufficient, but I’ll just leave you with the fact that for 10 plus years we have provided less than inflation to our public schools. And when you when you compound that amount over time, our schools are really struggling.

You see it in the number of referendums every election, you know, whether it’s operationalized so that they’re able to keep their lights on or whether it’s, you know, to improve their facilities and fix a roof, our schools are really struggling.

And so, again, when we’re taking money out of our education budget and siphoning some of that off to private enterprises who don’t have to ask taxpayers for dollars, right, they just get a set amount. What does that say about our commitment to public education? What does it say about our commitment to kids, our future and our state if we’re willing to do that?

So we need an infusion of dollars and again, it’s like our legislature is sitting on a $6 billion surplus and meanwhile, we are arguing neighbor to neighbor about whether or not to vote for a referendum.

Leigh Mills: To give the benefit of the doubt to the other perspective, are there benefits to taking kids out of maybe a school that isn’t functioning well and put them into one where they can get more one-on-one attention?

Dr. Underly: I would say that that’s true for any school, right? But the thing is when you say fundamentally and what’s the difference between a voucher school in a private school versus a public school is that public schools serve every kid and private schools don’t, and so that’s where we have to take into consideration.

Can you choose your students versus do you serve your community? I would rather take the money that we spend and putting, you know, what we’re putting into private schools and reinvest that into our public schools to make them better.

You know, we could put it into our human resources programming facilities. Every kid deserves a high quality public school in their community, so then they don’t have to make that choice.

Leigh Mills: Let’s move on to school safety. We saw what happened in Uvalde. Mass shootings continue to happen. It reinvigorates fears for parents. Is there anything being done or required at the state level to support districts in their efforts to keep students safe, and similarly, to support families in those concerns?

Dr. Underly: Every kid deserves to feel safe in their schools. And so I feel that’s where we need to be putting our energy and our resources into making sure that we have programs within our schools so that kids feel they belong and that parents feel safe sending their kids to those schools. You know, a lot of schools put together packages for referendum, of course.

You know, for school safety, you know, additional secure entrances or those kinds of things. Those measures are important, of course.

Leigh Mills: Do you feel pretty... how do you feel? I’m sure you haven’t been to every school building, but clearly you’ve been to a number of them. Do you think in general that here in our state we’re making those adjustments as needed and putting the best safety measures In place?

Dr. Underly: I think we’re doing the best we can. Again, our resources are really small and so it’s having to decide sometimes between, you know, it’s having to make choices. Unfortunately, you know what? Just to say that school shootings in general are very rare, but shootings, public shootings and marketplaces, concert schools, wherever they are, they’re very common.

And so I think we need to take into account what’s going on in our greater society and looking at solving those issues on a larger scale rather than focusing solely on schools.

Leigh Mills: Another issue of concern for families right now is inflation. We know that local food pantries are telling us we are helping more local families. They are coming. The need is there. I know that the USDA’s program for that free food is now ending, because that was a pandemic program.

How do you feel about the measures that we have in place to help children and families who might be struggling financially right now, knowing that you want them to be in the best position possible to learn right when they get to school?

Dr. Underly: And so I think that’s really importantly when we think about when kids are ready to learn, you have to consider the whole package. That they have a full stomach that they can focus. Then when they have a full stomach they’re getting a good night’s sleep. All these factors and a school can control whether or not they can feed a child at school and.

I have known no school district that has ever denied a meal to a child.

And so I think that’s something to consider that our schools are going to continue to provide these, these options to families and their kids, but the school district pays for it. You know, that’s the thing with the USDA.

Finally expired the free Meals the school districts are still figuring out how they can continue to pay for it.

I would love for the state of Wisconsin to follow California’s lead and have free breakfast and lunch and milk for all kids in our schools, and that’s being funded by the state of California.

Leigh: Oh, so they’re saying [Wisconsin] would just pay for this for all of them?

Dr. Underly: But there’s a reimbursement from USDA when it’s it’s based on participation I don’t want to get into the weeds. But the more kids that participate, the better the reimbursement is.

So I think we can figure it out, that’s interesting.

Leigh Mills: OK, I’m going to read off of this because I want to quote your commencement message you posted in June. It encouraged people to start a new conversation on how to unite and build as a state that innovates.

How would you encourage districts and families and students to do that this coming school year?

Dr. Underly: Yeah, when you think about the world and how it’s changed, how can we embrace that change to just make things better? I always say, and I’ve heard this before as well, that we wanted to come out of this pandemic, this crisis better than when we got into it. And So what does that look like? And so I just encourage our families and our kids in our schools to embrace that change.

Look at how they can make lives better and work together and in kindness and link arms and let’s go forward. It’s going to be a great school year.

Leigh: Anything else you want to add about concerns or hopes for the school year?

Dr. Underly: I’m optimistic. You know, there’s a lot of good things happening in our schools. I’m so impressed by the cadre of school leadership and teachers that we have and parents are excited, kids are excited, teachers are excited. And as I said, it’s going to be a great school year.

It’s not going to be without its challenges, but there’s that newness, and with newness comes that optimism and excitement.

Leigh Mills: I forgot one thing I wanted to ask about. Enrollment. Public school enrollment. This is interesting in my opinion, because I just was at a PTA meeting last night and learned that our elementary school is actually adding three sections.

We talked last year that enrollment was down and maybe that was due to the pandemic. Do you have a broader picture of how statewide public enrollment looks year to year?

Dr. Underly: Yeah, I mean I can just tell you the trends. I don’t know this particular school year yet. You know, before the pandemic, you know, we were right around 860,000 kids. After, you know, last school year we were down to like I think was 855. It’s a combination of a lot of things. You know that certainly private schools and voucher programs said that their enrollment was up.

But on the flip side, now the kids are not going to those schools and they’re coming back to their public school, and that’s a question as to why.

Leigh Mills: What do you think?

Dr. Underly: I can’t speculate, but as I said, not every kid is entirely welcome sometimes in a in a private school setting, so you never know. It could be a lot of things. It could also just be trends. We don’t have, you know, population, our population isn’t growing, so that could be a factor. There’s a lot of things, and I I hate to speculate, but it does make you wonder.

So it’ll be interesting when when that data does come out.

Leigh Mills: Anything else you want to add?

Dr. Underly: No, thanks for the opportunity and I’m just really excited for the school year. I’m one of those people that dusts off, you know, the school supplies, but that also gets a new planner and it’s just lots of opportunity right there.

Leigh Mills: That’s that’s the symbol, right? It’s a blank slate for a new year, absolutely.

Dr. Underly: Yes it is.

Leigh: Well, I hope it goes well and thank you for your time.