Citing Jill Underly’s support from Democrats and unions, top Republican Robin Vos vows to block increased DPI funding

One of the most influential lawmakers over the state budgeting process said he wouldn’t support increasing funding for the state education agency because its new leader elected Tuesday was heavily backed by Democrats and teachers unions. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, made the statement just an hour after Pecatonica School District Superintendent Jill Underly was elected state schools superintendent, a position that oversees the state Department of Public Instruction.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester

Vos went to war with Underly immediately after her election after outside spending fueled by Democratic groups set a record for state superintendent races, which are supposed to be nonpartisan but aren’t as more political groups spend to back candidates and state parties promote them. 

“… the teachers union owns the DPI; not the parents or the students or the taxpayers. Count me as someone who isn’t going to support putting another nickel into this unaccountable state bureaucracy,” Vos tweeted on Tuesday, an hour after the Associated Press called the race for Underly over former Brown Deer School District Superintendent Deb Kerr.

He was responding to a tweet from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political columnist who said “the teachers union still controls the state Department of Public Instruction” in response to Tuesday’s election results.   

FULL RESULTS:Totals from Tuesday’s Wisconsin elections

In response, Underly said she wants to work with the Legislature and Gov. Tony Evers to “help all kids — no matter how their parents vote.”

Jill Underly

“I think it’s clear from yesterday’s results that supporting our local schools and our children isn’t a partisan issue,” she said in a statement. “There’s plenty of common ground here, as I’ve already said I want resources to flow to schools, to help with mental health, credit recovery, staffing, and more.”

Kerr was largely backed by conservative groups who support the expansion of private school vouchers and Wisconsin Republicans, including likely GOP gubernatorial candidate and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. Kerr also drew some support from Democrats like Sen. Lena Taylor and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Outside spending in the race topped $1 million — the most ever — with $797,600 by liberal group A Better Wisconsin Together, the Wisconsin Education Association Council teachers union and abortion advocacy group Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, all on behalf of Underly.

American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group founded by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that generally backs Republicans, spent $209,000 in the race on behalf of Kerr. 

Republicans who control the Legislature and leaders of the DPI who have historically been Democrats, including Evers, have been at odds for years over how the state’s education agency should approach K-12 education. 

The infighting has lessened a bit since Evers was elected governor on a platform of increasing funding for schools and following polling that showed broad support for more spending on schools. During the last budget cycle, Republicans like Vos also backed increases for K-12 spending after previous budgets that largely held funding flat or made spending cuts.

Little time was spent talking about K-12 proposals backed by Republicans like the expansion of private voucher schools, which dominated debate for about a decade when Republicans controlled state government. 

The familiar dynamic between the Legislature and DPI re-emerged Tuesday when Vos said he didn’t want to send more money “for Madison bureaucrats who only answer to the teachers union,” referring to Underly. 

It’s unclear whether Vos meant he would not support a funding increase for DPI operations or for funding that goes directly to schools. Aides to Vos did not immediately answer that question. 

Underly has said she supports more funding for schools to hire more staff and expand programs and doesn’t want to “waste resources on DPI.”

She has proposed to reorganize DPI “in small ways to address some of the more imminent challenges facing public school districts.”

“Within the department I would add a research and development component that would work closely with the UW System and CESAs (Cooperative Educational Service Agencies), and I would create a more robust communications team to foster improved public relations,” Underly wrote in a survey by the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.