She “…came across as ignorant, confused and just sort of racist. She contradicted herself several times and had the nerve to suggest Black Parents are too stupid to know where their children should go to school. And remember, she opposes school choice, except for White people like herself. So why are Democrats like Gwen Moore and Tammy Baldwin supporting her?” -Mikel Holt
Jill Underly, the teachers’ union’s and Democratic Party’s choice for state school superintendent, was shredded by Dr. Ken Harris on Milwaukee black talk radio when asked why she doesn’t want to let black parents make their own choices about where to send their kids to school.
Harris also criticized her for a comment she made that “we have to look at opportunity gaps instead of looking fully at achievement.”
Harris responded, “Would you ever say that to a suburban school, that you wouldn’t look at just achievement when the whole purpose of school is just to achieve? Why is it okay to come into the city of Milwaukee and use that type of language and never use it in Arrowhead or Mequon?”
Harris, who has a radio show on 101.7 The Truth, pointed out that Underly sent her own kids to private schools in the past. Underly responded, “…it was an option; we paid for it. It wasn’t a voucher.”
Harris, an associate dean at Concordia University, retorted, “You had a choice because you had income and money, but we cant give that to other children?” Later in the show, a co-host accused Underly of being “privileged,” and a caller told Harris, “When you really pressed her, she kind of folded like a $2 bill.”
His co-host said, “She should have just said ‘I am privileged. I am privileged. I could afford it.'”
Jill Underly School Choice Stance
Underly’s comments on school choice didn’t sit well with other prominent black leaders, either. Mikel Holt, associate publisher of the Milwaukee Community Journal, a historic black newspaper, for 44 years, went off on Underly on Facebook.
“Why are the Democrats, including Black ones, supporting Underly for state superintendent?” he wrote.
“She appeared on the Ken Harris show today on 101.7, came across as ignorant, confused and just sort of racist. She contradicted herself several times and had the nerve to suggest Black Parents are too stupid to know where their children should go to school. And remember, she opposes school choice, except for White people like herself. So why are Democrats like Gwen Moore and Tammy Baldwin supporting her? Makes no sense…but that’s why I don’t belong to any political party. I love Black people too much. I’m voting for Kerr, who cares.”
Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr is the other candidate in the race; she has indicated support for school choice, whereas Underly repeatedly makes it clear that she opposes it. Underly has raised far more money than Kerr.
Underly appeared on the show, “The Truth in the Afternoon with Dr. Ken Harris” on March 29, 2021. The show was called “Jill, Make Your Case.” You can listen to the show here.
Harris’s show is on the new radio station, 101.7 The Truth, which pitches itself as, “It’ll be raw, honest, and true to what’s really going on in our communities. Our truths live here. Milwaukee. Black. Talk.”
Underly, who is white, repeated that she opposes expanding school choice.
Harris told Underly that there are “a lot of assumptions people make that public schools are the only place students should learn. Sounds like unions came in and took control of that.” He cited statistics that show that the majority of black parents favor vouchers and public charter schools.
“Why would you go against…data that clearly says…all parents want is a choice with their own tax dollars… why is it you believe (the Department of Public Instruction) is smarter than 70% of all Black parents – that you know what’s best for their children?” Harris asked.
Underly responded that she disagreed that “our tax dollars should be paying for private education.” She implied that parents are not doing enough research or fully understanding the topic. “Parents need to know the full story – that a lot of choice schools are not doing better than our public schools,” she said. “…I think parents need to have the full story.”
“It sounds like you want to take that choice away,” said Harris.
“Well, I’m not taking away from anybody who currently has the choice,” retorted Underly.
Harris responded, “Now you’re going to parse words…”
When Underly said she had a “history of showing up and advocating for all kids,” Harris pounced, saying, “You say you’re an advocate for all kids, but are you for or against choice and charter?”
Underly responded, “Yeah, you know-what am I going to say? I’m in favor of keeping our funding in our public schools.”
“But I don’t know what that means – are you for or against it?” questioned Harris.
“Well, there are different things in here; with vouchers I am against vouchers. I am not in favor of taking away a voucher from a kid who has one,” said Underly, adding that there are different kinds of charters. She thinks public charter schools are “great” because they are accountable to school boards but that independent charters are “more like private schools.” She said she wanted to make the latter “more accountable,” to which Harris asked, “Do you want them to go away?”
Underly responded, “It’s difficult for me to say that. I am against expanding them and taking away resources from our public schools.”
But Harris questioned by public schools should want to get paid for students who are “not there” because they’ve switched to private schools.
Underly repeated that she didn’t want to take “the money out of the schools in the first place.”
Harris then wondered, “Why is it not OK for a parent to be able to choose where a student goes?”
Underly said she does feel parents “know what’s best for their kids,” and Harris pounced on the logical contradiction, saying, “But now you’re taking away the choice they have…”
Underly responded that “tax dollars are supposed to go to our public schools,” calling public schools the “cornerstone of our democracy… they are a part of the community.”
“So private schools and choice schools are not part of the community?” queried Harris.
“I think we just have to disagree on this. I want to keep our resources in our public schools,” responded Underly.
Underly then went into a lengthy commentary of how resources should be put into the “highest poverty schools that need it the most,” especially things like early childhood programming.
Her full quote on achievement was, “We’re putting the burden of decades or centuries of systemic racism on our schools in the urban areas. We need to change that; that’s where we have to look at opportunity gaps instead of looking fully at achievement.”
Underly reiterated of choice: “I’m in favor of not expanding the program…I’m in favor of freezing enrollment in the programs. I don’t want them to grow.”
“Why is everyone so afraid of choice? What is it about choice that terrifies school districts, superintendents and unions?” asked Harris.
Underly responded that there is “no discrimination when it comes to admissions” in choice schools but “when they’re enrolled those protections, especially for special education, go out the window. We end up seeing kids go through private school who end up coming back to public school because their needs not being met.”
She then made an analogy: “There’s only so much pie; the slice of pie for the voucher programs gets a little bigger each year. We’re accountable to our taxpayers through our school boards. Voucher systems are not.”
Harris continued, “How do parents get to choose what’s best for their children if you don’t give them an option?” Underly mentioned open enrollment and said she was in favor of Chapter 220, but Harris responded, “Did 220 really work?”
Underly said, “I think it really worked,” but he said, “What did children lose when they left their neighborhoods, friends, people who looked like them. Sounds like the same idea that going to a white school is better going to a black school.”
Underly’s response was that it “went the other way too, kids who went to suburban schools went to magnet schools in MPS,” but Harris said magnet schools are not the same as other MPS schools.
Underly admitted, “…I need to learn more about it. My heart is with the public schools. I want to make them great for all kids.”
Harris then pounced. He wanted to know why they were “not great for your kids,” citing that Underly sent her kids to a private school in 2013-2014.
She denied it was because the public school in the area was low-performing, saying she wanted her kids to have full-day 4K that was offered only at the private Catholic school and the decision was “a family choice for childcare. I worked full time; my local public school didn’t have it.”
She admitted critics were “trying to paint me as a hypocrite” but noted “it was an option; we paid for it. It wasn’t a voucher.”
Harris responded, “You had a choice because you had income and money but we cant give that to other children?”
Underly’s response was that there are “a lot of things private schools can offer to families,” while ignoring the point that the point of choice is to give the same options to parents who do not have the same income and money as she had.
Later in the program, she said her goal was to “disrupt systems of inequity” and repeated that she had an “equity agenda.”
She repeatedly stated that high-poverty schools need to be given additional resources for “opportunities” like early childhood programming, summer programming, “the best teachers” and “trauma-informed care” to combat “decades, centuries of systemic racism.” She claimed, “When we talk about, with the achievement gaps, we have a direct correlation between well-resourced schools and higher achievement.”
Harris responded, “What about academics? I haven’t heard you say one word…”
“That’s part of it,” she said.
However, he noted that suburban schools “don’t have the same issues, though, crime anything – so putting a resource in a school and changing a neighborhood are” two different things.”
She said, “…we need to lift kids out of poverty,” but Harris responded that “it sounds like an assumption that all kids at MPS are in poverty… they are not. It’s going to the lowest common denominator that’s a reflection on black kids in Milwaukee…”
Underly responded that low achieving schools need to have the “same opportunities” as high achieving schools, citing buildings and access to mental health.
She said it was “time we explore it” when asked if she supported year-round schools, and agreed “we should look into” whether to make the first years of college compulsory, a K-14 school system.
In the end, Harris said he thought Underly would be a “fine school superintendent” and “held her own.”
One caller praised Harris’s line of questioning and said, “When she did not focus in on what is wrong with having a choice, that’s a problem with me…she gave the yearbook answer. Thumb’s down. Your interview was awesome. Your grill skills were excellent today. When you really pressed her, she kind of folded like a $2 bill.”
Later Harris said he was “still waiting for an answer on to whether parents should have a choice – why can’t parents have a choice? She had a choice; she used her money.”
Another caller said, “I enjoyed everything you asked her. It’s the truth. It’s so good that you didn’t hold back. Some other radio stations it seems like they cater to these individuals don’t ask the questions that need to be asked.”