Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Milwaukee Press Club 'Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism' 2020 & 2021 Award Winners

Deb Kerr For WI State Superintendent: 20 Things to Know as You Vote Today

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If she wins today, Brown Deer Schools Superintendent Deb Kerr will be a lot of firsts. The first state school superintendent in Wisconsin history not endorsed by the teacher’s union, which she thinks has an unhealthy stranglehold on the state Department of Public Instruction, putting teachers before kids and parents.

She would be the first Wisconsin state school superintendent who supports school choice. She would be the first from the Milwaukee area. She thinks all schools should be teaching students in person, and the fact they’re not is worsening achievement disparities.

“We’ve got to get back to school. These kids are going to be years behind,” she says.

You wouldn’t know it from the media, which has focused on a lot of sideshows in a race that has seen Kerr’s opponent wildly outspend her due to an influx of cash from the teacher’s union, Democratic party, and other liberal interests, including those who oppose school choice. There’s no question about it: Jill Underly is the teacher’s union’s favorite candidate. There’s no question that school choice advocates prefer Kerr.

We interviewed Kerr on election eve to get a sense of where she stands on the issues in the race for a seat once held by Tony Evers before he was elected governor.

The election is on Tuesday, April 6.

This is a candidate who supported Act 10, is pro-life, and opposes Common Core and critical race theory in the classroom.

The state school superintendent is in charge of “all children,” and she wants all schools public and private in “one system of accountability and transparency and equitable access. No one has brought parties to the table.” She says that 80 percent of black parents “are favorable to school choice. Neighborhood public schools are not serving them well.” (In fact, Kerr has received support from black leaders who support school choice.)

“Everybody wants their kids back in school,” she says. “We are losing a generation of kids if we don’t get back to school.”

While school choice is definitely a key issue and bellwether in the race – Kerr supports lifting caps on voucher schools, Underly wants no expansion – the focus on it and other hot-button issues obscure what is probably the biggest difference between the two candidates: The experience and achievement gap between Kerr and Underly.

Kerr has a total of 40 years in education, including 21 years as superintendent of public rural and suburban districts, in contrast, to Underly who has over 20 years of education experience, including 6 years as the superintendent of the Pecatonica School District.

Some of Kerr’s other experience includes:

  • Co-Chair of the UW System Task Force
  • To Advance Teachers and Leaders into the Pipeline
  • President of National and State Superintendent Associations
  • The School Superintendents Association (AASA) and Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (WASDA)
  • Adjunct Professor at Local Universities
  • Champion of Excellence and Equity for ALL Students
  • Mentor and Advocate for Women Leaders
  • Founding Member of Women Leading Wisconsin
  • Coach of Back-to-back Girls Varsity Basketball State Championships

A story not oft-told: Kerr worked to narrow achievement disparities between students of color and white students in her home school district by hiring reading specialists and adding character education to the curriculum. The result: A nearly 100% graduation rate in a district surrounded by those where far fewer walk across the stage.

Despite the media’s focus on Republicans like former Gov. Scott Walker and school choice advocates supporting Kerr, she is hard to peg politically. She says she is a moderate Democrat, but she has “conservative values,” noting that she has always been fiscally conservative. Underly comes across as unabashedly liberal, and she was skewered on Milwaukee black talk radio for sending her own kids to private schools because she had the money, while denying black and other parents the same option.

Kerr said she also believes strongly in equity issues but differs from Underly on how to get there. Whereas Underly talks about funding and buildings, Kerr talks about closing reading gaps and character education. She has presided over an extremely diverse school district in the Milwaukee metropolitan area, whereas Underly has fewer years of experience in what Kerr points out is an almost entirely white rural district.

When you boil it down, Kerr supports giving parents more options for their children’s schooling. She wants to take schools back to the basics with a strict focus on phonics and math.

“I do believe in education reform,” she says, “and keeping property taxes low. I have a proven track record and the most experience – 40 years in education.”

She wants to “get the unions out of the DPI and get back to the basics, teaching phonics, math, counting; that’s what it’s going to take to get improvement and growth.”

Here are some of her other statements and positions, during the interview with us:


Closing the Achievement Gap in Brown Deer

Kerr said that over the 13 years she has been superintendent in Brown Deer, the district has become more diverse. At first, students were coming into 9th grade with 5th-grade reading levels. “It was shocking,” she says. “You would think when you’re in high school, you should be able to read.” She and a high school principal decided they needed to “do something different,” so they hired three reading specialists at the high school.

“That’s what kids needed – targeted intervention to build the capacity to be proficient readers.” She said that the strategies proved successful. The gap between white and non-white students shrank. “We were almost at a 100% graduation rate.”

When they noticed that they were suspending “black kids five times the amount of white kids,” they realized there was a problem, so they created “character education” classes, to teach things like respect, tolerance and responsibility, “values and virtues kids were not getting at home.” The program won a national award. “We were creating this new culture and climate where kids felt a sense of belonging.”

In contrast, Underly “has no experience in working in diverse school districts. Our problems are so complex; the state needs someone like me who has been in the context of it.” She doesn’t want to “throw money at an old problem.”

Kerr stressed that she supports “equity.” In Brown Deer, she said, she spoke out when students were called the N-word at a football game.

“They were just expected to take it,” she said. “I was tired of it. I spoke out and advocated for them. It was not acceptable. I called it out.”

She also created a harassment and discrimination policy. Kerr also believes there needs to be more diverse teachers in classrooms, so students are taught by people who look like them.


Deb Kerr Doesn’t Support Critical Race Theory

However, she does not support critical race theory in the classroom, saying, “No, absolutely not, we never talked about that in Brown Deer, which is one of the most diverse school districts in the state.” She said it’s important to “get ideology out of curriculum.”


Wants the Pledge of Allegiance Said Every Day

Kerr said she wants students taught the “values and virtues of the Constitution,” including “making sure we say the Pledge of Allegiance every day.” She wants to “teach the American dream and history of our country.” She wants students to be “proud to be American.”


On Partisanship in the Race

“This is a non-partisan race. Our kids are not partisan. They don’t wear red-and-blue jackets.”

She said she has the support of the Wisconsin Republican Party, but she has “always worked well with people across the aisle,” saying she has worked with Democrats like Lena Taylor (who endorsed her) as well as Republicans like Alberta Darling. She was recently endorsed by Democrat Arne Duncan, who was President Obama’s education secretary. Yet she has financial backing from some conservative heavyweights like billionaire Diane Hendricks.


On Why Attack Ads Will Backfire

She thinks the attack ads running against her from Democrats will “backfire on them” because people are “politically fatigued” and get-out-the-vote efforts could carry the day.


On Why Democrats Poured So Much Money Into the Race

“They know I can win,” she said, noting that she was only 2,650 votes under Underly during the primary.


On Honoring Parental Choice

“If parents want their children to be in school choice, it’s important, and we need to honor that choice,” she said. “In four years these caps come off and that’s the law, vouchers are here to stay. Let’s quit arguing and cut the toxic rhetoric and do what our kids need.”

She added, “High tides raise all votes.”

As for raising caps on the number of children allowed into publicly funded voucher schools, she says, “yes, absolutely,” but notes it’s “not in my purview.”


In-Person Schooling in a Pandemic

She is troubled that some of the state’s five largest districts stuck with virtual schooling. She believes this has created a racial disparity.


The Challenges of Rural School Districts

She believes that rural schools “have similar challenges with urban schools – poverty, robust Internet, attracting high-quality staff.” She wants to do a compensation analysis because “rural kids deserved as good of teachers” and wants to build partnerships to foster “more robust internet access.”

Deb Kerr adds, “I would like to look at funding to help those school districts dealing with more kids poverty and dealing with special needs.”


Transgender Athletes Competing in Women’s Sports

She said that the state school superintendent doesn’t have any control over transgender sports participation, which falls under the authority of the WIAA and Legislature. She calls it a “very complex and nuanced situation,” but notes, “I’m a girl of Title 9. I was a collegiate athlete. I played sports all of my life. I want to compete against other women.”


On Underly’s Name Calling

“It’s unfortunate. I resent the fact my opponent continues to do namecalling. I was called a liar, a racist, a transphobic, an insurrectionist,” she said, adding that she is none of those things. She said that Underly had “basically called all conservatives and Republicans transphobic.”


On Teaching Reaching

Deb Kerr believes there “hasn’t been enough access and opportunity with all kids,” noting that Wisconsin schools are “teaching reading 400 different ways.


Alternative Methods for Teaching Licenses

Deb Kerr says she was instrumental in the passage of an alternative teaching license law because it was so hard to find business and technical education teachers. Deb Kerr believes that work-based experience should count, explaining an example where she had a tech ed teacher with an economics degree who had worked as a carpenter but didn’t have teacher licensing. He became “one of the most successful tech ed teachers in the state.”

She is a supporter of teaching more students about trades.


The Pandemic

She said a lot of parents transferred their kids to private schools during the pandemic because they offered in-person classes. If elected, she wants to make sure that DPI provides resources to “all of these schools to reopen safely and sensibly.” She said that 70% of schools have been open since Sept. 1, mostly in rural areas.

She believes “students are not spreaders” of COVID and schools can safely open even without every teacher being vaccinated.

Deb Kerr believes the lack of in-person schooling has “exacerbated” the achievement gaps and says parents are “frustrated and angry,” saying she knows some who had to quit their jobs because their kids were in virtual learning. “It’s an equity issue.”

Should all schools open full-time in person? “Absolutely. The data shows we can do it.”


Common Core

“I would like to see Common Core eliminated. It’s a very low expectation. I want to get rid of Common Core. It’s a federal mandate.” She would advocate for that change.


Supporting Act 10

Asked whether she supported Act 10, she said “absolutely. We needed every tool we could get in Brown Deer to balance our budget and keep teachers in their positions without laying them off.”

The union was blocking a change in an insurance policy that would have kept the same policies and deductibles but saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a plan to have teachers “give us 30 more minutes of time a day so they could work together.”

The teacher’s union “held it hostage” until Act 10 allowed these changes, she said.

“I supported Gov. Walker, and he supports me,” she said. “I voted for him, especially during the recall, which was a serious waste of taxpayer money.”


On the Teacher’s Union

“It’s a travesty that the adults in the unions are given all of the consideration. Look what’s happened during the pandemic; they keep changing the goalposts…kids and families are suffering. Teachers have done a heroic job, but we have to think of kids and families first.”

“We’ve got to get back to school. These kids are going to be years behind.”


On How the Media Treated Her

Deb Kerr called the media “fake and unfair.”

She said she had a “complicated issue with a business manager” but the media failed to run a supportive press release and she had a “school board that stood behind me the entire time.”

She said her own community in Milwaukee “would not even give me the benefit of the doubt.” She said that’s because of the dominance of the teacher’s union.


Deb Kerr On Making DPI More Consumer-Friendly

She wants to have a “regional approach, get more boots on the ground. DPI has not been a customer service-friendly organization. You can’t even get a human being on the phone.”


Her Immediate Plans if Elected

Deb Kerr wants to “meet with every legislator in the first 100 days.”

She wants to talk to the Legislature about changing policies that prevent retired teachers from working more in schools.

She thinks the state should focus on “workforce development needs” like agriculture, health care, teaching, and manufacturing.

Trump's First Criminal Trial

Prosecutors Rest Their Case Against Trump in Hush Money Trial

State prosecutors rested their case against former President Donald Trump on Monday, capping off four weeks of testimony from 20 witnesses.

The first-ever trial of a former President was one step closer to a conclusion after prosecutors concluded their case Monday. Next up: Trump's attorneys will get a chance to present their defense. The case centered around Trump's alleged sexual encounter with an adult film actress in 2006 and a $130,000 payment to her in 2016 to keep her quiet ahead of the 2016 election. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied the encounter happened.

Prosecutors allege that Trump covered up the payment to Stormy Daniels and another hush money payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal ahead of the election and covered them up as legal payments.

Trump, 77, is the first former U.S. president to be charged with a felony.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records related to money paid to Daniels and McDougal. Bragg has alleged Trump broke New York law when he falsified business records with the intent to commit or conceal another crime.

Prosecutors allege Trump falsified internal records kept by his company, hiding the true nature of payments that involve Daniels ($130,000), McDougal ($150,000), and Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen ($420,000). Prosecutors allege the money was logged as legal expenses, not reimbursements. Both Cohen and Daniels testified during the trial.

Daniels detailed the alleged 2006 sexual encounter and testified she "blacked out." She also said Trump didn't wear a condom. Defense attorneys asked for a mistrial after that testimony, which they argued was prejudicial.

Judge Juan Merchan denied that motion and repeatedly fined Trump for his comments and social media activity outside of the courtroom. Merchan ordered Trump to pay a total of $10,000 for violations of the gag order.

The gag order remains in place. Trump, the nation's 45th president, is prohibited from making or directing others to make public statements about the jurors, witnesses, attorneys, court staff, district attorney staff and family members of staff.

It is not clear if Trump plans to take the stand in his own defense. He previously said he would take the stand if necessary.

Under New York state law, falsifying business records in the first degree is a Class E felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.

In late March, Trump said that he wasn't worried about a conviction when asked if he thought a conviction could hurt his chances of returning to the White House.

"It could also make me more popular because the people know it's a scam," he said. "It's a Biden trial, there is no trial, there's a Biden trial."

Whatever happens during the trial, Trump will be protected by the U.S. Secret Service.

Even if convicted and sentenced to jail, Trump could continue his campaign to retake the White House.

"The Constitution does not bar felons from serving as President," said Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Trump could not pardon himself from any state charges, Hasen said.

Federal Scholarship Program Under Fire For Alleged Bias Against Conservatives

Lawmakers have threatened to revoke the appropriations for a federally-funded scholarship program that an audit found favors liberally leaning students over conservatives by a ratio of 10 to 1.

The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation was established in the 1970s to award scholarships to students who “demonstrate outstanding potential for and who plan to pursue a career in public service.”

An audit of those scholarships performed by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, though, reported strong liberal bias at the taxpayer-funded foundation.

“While this role suggests these programs should include scholars who reflect a breadth of views, values, and interests, their participants instead display a stark ideological tilt,” AEI said in its report.

The foundation does have members of both parties on its board, including U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kans.

Notably, President Joe Biden's Education Secretary Miguel Cardona also sits on the board.

House Republican lawmakers on leadership on the relevant committees sent a letter to foundation Executive Secretary Terry Babcock-Lumish demanding answers.

“Between 2021 and 2023, the Truman Foundation selected 182 Truman winners,” the letter said. “Yet, despite the Truman Foundation’s claims that it ‘supports scholars from a wide range of perspectives, interests, and geographic areas,’ just six recipients espoused interest in a cause traditionally considered conservative-leaning.

“Not a single winner professed interest in causes such as protecting the rights of the unborn or defending the Second Amendment,” the letter continued. “By contrast, the Foundation selected at least 74 winners professing interest in a progressive cause.”

The foundation awards about 60 scholarships every year.

“As a publicly funded award charged with preparing the civic leaders of tomorrow, the Truman Scholarship should, at a bare minimum, be reflective of the country’s breadth of values, viewpoints, and interests,” the letter said. “The Truman Foundation requested approximately $3 million in appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year. However, if the Truman Scholarship functions as a career booster solely for students of a particular political persuasion, it should no longer be worthy of Congressional support, taxpayer funding, or its exalted public image.”

Education and the Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development Chairman Burgess Owens, R-Utah., and Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., led the letter.

The foundation did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

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Wisconsin Lawmakers Push Questions About IDs For Illegal Immigrants, Voting

(The Center Square) – Some Wisconsin lawmakers are trying to calm fears about illegal immigrants getting IDs and voting in the state.

The Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections and the Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection held a hearing Thursday with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, some local election clerks and Fond du Lac County’s district attorney.

“We're not trying to get anybody into a bad spot here, or in a corner, or make accusations on that level,” Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, said. “We want our clerks, who are already stressed enough, to know that we are here to be there as an assist to them.”

Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, said he wants to make sure voters have faith in Wisconsin’s electoral process.

“This is one of the topics that hit our inboxes quite a bit the last three months or so,” Krug added. “We thought it’s pretty important just to vet it out, to get all the information out to the public.”

The Wisconsin Elections Commission was invited to Thursday’s meeting but didn’t attend because commissioners were having a meeting of their own. But that left lawmakers’ questions unanswered.

Wis-DOT Deputy Secretary Kristina Boardman said Wisconsin is known as a strict voter ID state.

“I want to make very clear that Wis-DOT is required to provide free identification cards for U.S. citizens that request them for the purposes of voting, and that to be eligible for that free identification card one must be a U.S. citizen and at least 17 years of age,” Boardman said. “Wis-DOT staff do not determine voter eligibility or register anyone to vote. Someone who has a Wisconsin ID or a driver's license is eligible to register to vote online, and that information will be confirmed with Wisconsin DMV systems to ensure that the information entered for voter registration is consistent with the DMV's records

Boardman said in Wisconsin, less than a fraction of one percent of ID requests are fraudulent.

“We put together [a] case activity report, assemble all of the documentation that we have, we have the investigator that had the case pull that together, and we do refer that to law enforcement so that they can take whatever action is appropriate,” Boardman added. “We note what statutes we believe may have been violated. And then it's up to law enforcement to take action.”

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Senate Republicans Override Evers’ Vetoes

(The Center Square) – On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate voted to override nine vetoes from Gov. Tony Evers, including the vetoes that scuttled PFAS clean-up money, millions of dollars that were earmarked for hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls and a plan that would allow advanced practice registered nurses to work more independently.

“The legislature has passed hundreds of bills to solve problems facing Wisconsin businesses and families. Most of these bills were signed into law, but many were vetoed by a governor more focused on politics than policies that help everyday Wisconsinites,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said Tuesday. “Overriding the governor’s obstructive vetoes is the last, best way to address these critical issues.”

The override votes came one day after Evers sued the legislature over nearly $200 million that is attached to some of his vetoes.

Most of that money is the $125 million that’s supposed to go toward PFAS clean up in Wisconsin.

“For the fifth time this legislative session, I voted to provide Wisconsin families with the largest investment in clean drinking water in state history – five more times than every Democrat legislator in this state combined. The bill that Gov. Evers vetoed (SB 312) would have created a grant program that targets this critical funding to areas of the state most heavily impacted by PFAS contamination while protecting innocent landowners from financial ruin,” Sen Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, said.

Evers has accused the legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee of obstructing his plans to clean up Wisconsin’s drinking water, and of delaying his other actions across the state.

LeMahieu said Evers is simply playing the game.

“While Gov. Evers plays politics, the legislature will continue to do the right thing on behalf of the people of our state,” LeMahieu added.

Senate Democrats responded with game-playing accusations of their own.

“Coming in to do all these veto overrides was clearly a stunt to try to appeal to voters ahead of the fall election,” Den. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said. “Clearly Republicans were hearing from things in their district and wanted political cover. I don't think they got political cover today. I think what they got was people realizing just how afraid they are.”

But Tuesday’s veto overrides are largely symbolic.

While Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate have a veto-proof majority, Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly do not.

trump vs biden

Trump Holds Lead Over Biden Heading Toward November

With less than half a year until the 2024 presidential election, former President Donald Trump holds a sizable lead over incumbent President Joe Biden in several swing states.

While the overall national polling varies and shows a tighter race, Trump holds significant leads in several swing states.

According to Real Clear Politics, Trump leads in a slew of key battleground states like Arizona (+5.2), Georgia (+4.6), Michigan (+0.8), Nevada (+6.2), North Carolina (+5.4), Pennsylvania (+2.0), and Wisconsin (+0.6).

Other polling has shown Trump with a dominant lead in the Sun Belt while performing less well against Biden in some rust belt swing states.

“As the old saying goes, good gets better and bad gets worse, and it’s clear President Biden is in bad shape right now,” Colin Reed, a Republican strategist, former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and co-founder of South and Hill Strategies, told The Center Square. “Five and a half months is an eternity in politics, and there’s theoretically still time to right the ship, but it’s getting late early for the president, especially when Father Time remains undefeated and doubts about his age continue to grow. “

According to the Real Clear Politics’ national polling average, Trump leads Biden 46.1% to 44.9%.

A New York Times poll released this week showed leads for Trump in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania but slightly trailing Biden in Wisconsin, raising concerns among supporters.

Trump’s lead has been in large part fueled by minority voters flocking to his side.

Meanwhile, Biden’s approval rating has plummeted since taking office. While that is not unusual for incumbents, Biden’s approval is lower than recent presidents.

Gallup recently released polling data showing that in the 13th quarter of Biden’s presidency, he averaged a 38.7% approval rating, worse than Trump at the same time in his term.

“None of the other nine presidents elected to their first term since Dwight Eisenhower had a lower 13th-quarter average than Biden,” Gallup said.

Axios reported this week that Biden and his team think the polls don’t represent Americans’ actual feelings and that the president’s position is strong.

“They're still 50% (well 45%) to win, per betting markets,” pollster Nate Silver wrote on X. “But Biden has been behind Trump in polls for a year now. His approval is in the tank, and voters have been clear they think he's too old. If Trump wins, history will not remember Biden kindly.”

Meanwhile, Trump spends valuable campaign time in a series of court appearances for his myriad of federal prosecution court dates.

“I’m under a gag order,” Trump told reporters after a court appearance Tuesday. “Nobody has actually seen anything like it ... I'm beating him in every poll and I have a gag order, so I think it's totally unconstitutional."

Republicans have blasted Biden for Trump’s prosecution, accusing Biden of using the Justice Department against his political opponent.

“Despite Far Left Democrats’ illegal election interference, President Trump is beating Joe Biden in the polls!” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., wrote on X Tuesday. “Voters see right through the sham Biden Trials and know President Trump is the best choice for president.”

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