MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Voters will narrow the field of seven candidates seeking to become Wisconsin’s top education official, with a Tuesday primary that pits a conservative-backed candidate who says she’s a Democrat against six others with more Democratic support.
The top two vote-getters in the officially nonpartisan race to be secretary of the Department of Public Instruction will advance to the April 6 general election. Polls were open statewide Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
State election officials expect turnout to be low for the race, which is the only statewide contest on the ballot. There are more than 100 other primaries for local races across the state, including vacancies for open seats in the state Senate and Assembly. Both primaries are among Republicans for the seats that had been filled by Republicans.
The winner in the state superintendent’s race will replace Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who took over as state superintendent in 2019 but declined to seek a full term. She held the position after Tony Evers left the post when he was elected governor. Evers had been state superintendent since 2009.
The job of state superintendent is to oversee education policy in Wisconsin. That includes setting priorities and a two-year budget request, managing a variety of education programs statewide, including the voucher and school choice programs, as well as dispersing grant funding to schools and districts.
The superintendent’s powers are limited and must implement the laws as passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Evers.
How candidates feel about taxpayer funded school choice programs, which Republicans have expanded the past decade, often serves as a litmus test with voters. The winner this year will take over in the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, with high pressure on schools to remain safe as students go to classes in person.
The one candidate with widespread conservative backing, former Brown Deer superintendent Deborah Kerr, is a supporter of the private school voucher system but cites her backing from some Democrats as evidence she is running a bipartisan campaign. Kerr said she is a Democrat who voted for Joe Biden, but she’s also taken big money from Republicans and backers of the school choice program.
The other candidates are:
— Jill Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica Area School District and the most vocally anti-voucher school candidate, opposes expansion of the program. She is a former assistant director at the state education department and is endorsed by the Wisconsin Education Association Council and more than a dozen current and former Democratic state lawmakers.
— Sheila Briggs, an assistant state superintendent, has been at the state education department since 2011. She previously worked 15 years in the Madison school district, including as a teacher and principal. Briggs is supported by former Democratic state lawmakers Tim Cullen and Stephen Smith.
— Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams, also a former worker at the state education department, is vying to become the first African American person elected as state superintendent. She is a voucher supporter but also previously worked for Evers’ administration.
— Troy Gunderson, the former West Salem superintendent, had a 35-year career in public education and has been endorsed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind.
— Steve Krull, a principal in the Milwaukee Public Schools, has worked in the district for 12 years.
— Joe Fenrick, a Fond du Lac High School science teacher for 15 years, is a Fond du Lac County supervisor.
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