It’s been a challenging few years for K-12 education, both locally and nationally. Wisconsin State Superintendent Jill Underly is nonetheless “optimistic” about what’s ahead for the field.
“I think people are coming together, realizing that if we want to improve the lives of all Wisconsinites and especially the kids who are going to be the future leaders of the state, we need to all come together to solve these problems,” Underly said , as she reflected on 2022. “I see that reflected in a budget, I see it reflected in the referendums that our communities have passed, I see it in the policies that our stakeholders are proposing.
“I’m really, really optimistic about it in the long run.”
Part of that optimism comes from her request for the 2023-25 biennial budget, which legislators will begin to form early next year. She has the support of Gov. Tony Evers, re-elected in November, for a significant investment into K-12 education.
Less certain is the interest of Republican majorities in both the Assembly and Senate, who in the previous budget did not provide an increase in school district revenue limits, opting instead to cut property taxes by increasing state aid. This year, though, the state is working with a record $6.6 billion state surplus, which Underly called an “incredible opportunity.”
Underly said she believes “the individuals in the legislature do share our goals” for education, including the new incoming chair of the Assembly Committee on Education.
“The goal that I have is centered around a vision that we can work together, shoulder to shoulder with parents and educators, to ensure that every single student in the state has an incredible public school education,” she said. “That they can attain economic security and pursue their passions. That’s the responsibility of all of us.”
‘Getting our teachers paid’
As she looked outside at the snowstorm hitting just before Christmas weekend, Underly compared education funding to how communities fund snow and road cleanup efforts.
“When it snows we don’t just not plow or not salt. We can’t say, ‘There’s not enough money in the budget,’ or we don’t have enough people to plow the roads,” she said. “If you have a patch of road that everybody knows is treacherous … it’s the government’s responsibility to do something about that road and not just expect every driver can know ahead of time that they need to slow down.”
Among the priorities she’s most excited to focus on, which she said the budget reflects, are helping students with mental health, expanding childcare as well as with before- and after-school opportunities, and “getting our teachers paid and our educators retained.”
Acknowledging the staffing shortages schools have faced over the past year, Underly called the past few years a “perfect storm.” Fewer people were going into teaching, coupled with a high number of retirees and the effects of the pandemic.
“What can we do? It certainly improves the respect and the conversations that we have around the virtues of teaching, why it is the most important profession,” she said. “And we need to have some hard conversations about how we can support those who go into education, making it a viable, family sustaining career.”
What students need most
She’s proud of what schools have done to adapt to and learn from the challenges COVID-19 has presented since March 2020, including the recognition that “there were a lot of unmet mental health needs before the pandemic, but they were compounded during the pandemic. ”
“The kids that we need to reach, they’re in the schools, so how can we deliver these services where the kids are?” she said, noting the rise of telehealth appointments and increased staffing for school counselors, social workers and psychologists.
She hopes the state can work together to address the ongoing racial opportunity gaps, stressing that any gap in an output like standardized test scores is the result of gaps in the inputs of resources. To fix it, she said, communities need to provide students with the basic things they need to learn: food, mental health support and an enriching curriculum.
“We have to work together, so it’s not just DPI, it’s the school boards, it’s the legislature, community groups, it’s parents, it’s nonprofits,” she said. “We have to address these issues that often reliable funding can help make better, and it’s a group effort.
“A lot of gaps that we see in our communities are a result of decades of policies, and decades of diminishing resources that are not part of the school.”