2021 Election of State Superintendent of Public Instruction

The Wisconsin State Superintendent election will be held Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction, sometimes referred to as the State Superintendent of Schools, is a constitutional officer within the executive branch of the Wisconsin state government, and acts as the executive head of the Department of Public Instruction.

WAEE has asked the candidates about their views on environmental education. Their responses are provided below:


Deborah Kerr

Question 1:

What is your personal experience with environmental education? How has outdoor learning and natural resource education influenced you as an educator and administrator? 

“I was a kid who grew up playing outside. My Mom would have to call for me to come in to eat supper. I would often leave the house in the morning, only to come back home to use the bathroom, and then go back outside. We played recreational games, went to play in the local parks, and swam in the park district pools. Because of these great childhood experiences, I was always one to want to be outside especially to learn more about the environment.

In grade school, we studied how pollution impacts our environment. I made an art project showing how neglectful people were throwing their trash on our school grounds like wine bottles, soda cans, fast-food trash, etc. I assembled a collage of garbage on a wooden plaque to showcase the problem of pollution on our school grounds. I also wrote an essay to indicate how we could better take care of our environment. My teacher submitted my project to our local Village and I won a $25 savings bond. Also, my Mom was a great gardener. Each spring we planted vegetables and flowers outside our house and I helped her take care of the plants, watering the beds, and weeding. It was a great childhood experience that I still enjoy today as an adult. This was my beginning of me becoming an advocate for environmental education.

One of the hallmarks of my leadership as a Superintendent in the Brown Deer School District was a successful $22 million dollar referendum where we created a master plan for our outdoor campus by incorporating bioswales, apple orchards, children gardens, outside play space, and the plantings of hundred of bushes, trees, and flowers across our 63 acre campus. We incorporated walking trails throughout the campus along with museum-like signage that described each of the areas; prairie habitat, perennials, bioswales, etc to name a few. We contracted with a landscape designer to incorporate all of the different seasons of color to showcase our own botanical gardens throughout the Brown Deer campus. One fall, we had our students plant over 1000 tulip bulbs along the newly renovated space and in the spring their beauty emerged after a long cold winter. Our building project and campus won several awards for this project as we reduced the carbon footprint of large parking lots, mitigated stormwater runoff, and created a place for students to learn outdoors through science, play, art, and physical activity.

The Brown Deer’s School District campus is a sight to see this summer. It’s alive with color in a creative mix of shrubs and perennials. It’s like a virtual science lab that’s fun to explore. The lovely natural setting is accentuated by new signage, delightful birdhouses and unique “little libraries.”The School District’s gardens were designed by renowned, local landscape architect Dennis Buettner, and originally planted by volunteers. More than 20 new “museum quality” signs were installed along the trail to guide visitors through the unique prairie habitat. The signs identify botanical specimens, various species of trees, perennials, birds and a beautiful arrangement of rocks specific to our Wisconsin lands and rivers.

The School District’s outdoor campus is a must-stop during all seasons of the year. During the summer, the trails are aflutter with butterflies, birds and bees, and flowers are in their full glory. Stop by soon to enjoy nature at its most beautiful. Along the trail, pick out a special book from one of the libraries (or drop one off). Then, relax on one of the benches to appreciate how lucky we are to have this get away that everyone in the community can enjoy.”

Question 2:

The Every Student Succeeds Act* indicates there is state funding “for activities and programs…supporting local educational agencies in providing programs and activities that…offer well-rounded education experiences…which may include…environmental education” to address student and school needs. In 2015, Wisconsin passed Joint Assembly Resolution 27, Wisconsin’s Children’s Outdoor Heritage Resolution, likewise affirmed “members of the Wisconsin legislature recognize that every Wisconsin child should continue to have the opportunity to: discover Wisconsin’s diverse wilderness;…breathe clean air and drink clean water; splash, play, swim and boat in clean lakes and rivers;…play in the dirt, plant a tree, and grow a garden,” among other things. How do you foresee Wisconsin schools playing a role in ensuring children have these experiences? *(Sec. 4104 State Use of Funds: (b)(3)(A)(i)(VI))

“We are fortunate to live in a state where we have vast environmental resources to support our children in their development of environmental literacy. As State Superintendent, I will continue the current work of our Department of Public Instruction providing school districts with the resources and support needed to successfully develop and implement their K-12 environmental learning plans reflecting the “Wisconsin Standards for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability.”

All across our state school districts have been implementing these standards through environmental programming, courses and clubs. Some districts have created environmental schools and learning opportunities by leveraging partnerships with community organizations, nature centers, and higher education. Great examples can be found in this edition of the “Wisconsin School News.” I will continue to support and celebrate partnerships that afford students greater access to experiences and opportunities.

With the Every Student Succeeds Act, environmental literacy opportunities were expanded for many of Wisconsin’s students by affording districts receiving funding for 21st CCLC (out of school time programs with community partners) an opportunity to pursue environmental grants. Together we can leverage opportunities to assist students in their learning loss by ensuring equitable access to high quality environmental learning experiences.

The Department of Public Instruction also developed a comprehensive strategic plan to advance environmental literacy entitled “Wisconsin’s Plan to Advance Education for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability in PK-12 Schools.” As State Superintendent, I will advocate to continue to ensure that all school districts across our state are equitably supported as they work to achieve the goals of their plans, particularly related to ensuring that all teachers and students are afforded opportunities to connect with nature, with a focus on environmental literacy and sustainability.”

Question 3:

The covid-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of outdoor learning as a safe practice and educational tool. How do you believe Wisconsin schools should continue to support outdoor learning practices following the pandemic?

Outdoor learning affords us an opportunity to safely reopen schools. In doing so, we can begin to address the deleterious impact of COVID-19 on students and school communities. By reimagining our schools and creating outdoor classrooms, not only can we ensure social distancing and fresh air to mitigate the spread of the virus, but also expand learning experiences and opportunities for our students.

I support Wisconsin’s schools continuing outdoor learning practices after the pandemic. One way to ensure this is to provide our schools with the resources and support they need to continue to do so. The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which was established in response to COVID-19, addressed inequities across our K12 schools by developing a National Outdoor Learning Library as part of their initiative. This free online resource can assist in the transformation of outdoor learning spaces in an effort to “reduce the burden on indoor classrooms while providing fresh air, hands-on-learning opportunities.” There are many great resources about how to incorporate learning in an outdoor setting. One final idea is that I facilitated a book study with my teachers, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. This book written by Robert Louv reminds us of the importance of the essential connection with nature especially with our students.


Jill Underly

Question 1:

What is your personal experience with environmental education? How has outdoor learning and natural resource education influenced you as an educator and administrator? 

“My personal experience with environmental education has been very valuable and I encourage all educators to embrace it. Environmental education has influenced me by:

  • Creating a greater appreciation for the outdoors; and our state park, county parks, and trail systems.
  • Developing the ability to enjoy the outdoors and lifetime sports like biking, hiking, fishing, and snowshoeing.
  • Appreciating the natural world: ornithology, botany, agriculture and agricultural education, and astronomy. I have always been interested in geology and weather, and I live in a part of the world where I have diversity in both subjects. This has provided personal enjoyment for me and allowed me to explore my passions for these subjects in my own hobbies such as food preservation, poultry, gardening, and learning more about farm-raised animals, coffee-roasting, and brewing.
  • Enhancing critical thinking and problem solving

How has outdoor learning and natural resource education influenced me as an educator and administrator?
As a result of outdoor learning and natural resource education, I’ve made conscious decisions about how to incorporate these topics and life lessons into instruction and programs in our schools. It has also made me much more aware of climate change, the impact of humans on our environment – including weather, agriculture, and wild and domesticated animals, extinction, air and water quality.

  • As a social studies teacher I would incorporate place-based learning and living history into lessons and field trips with every opportunity.
  • As an administrator we’ve advocated for and started programs such as the school garden, summer camp program for our students in grades K-5, continued programs like our 5th grade trip to Upham Woods (UW Extension);
  • Engaging students in the real world and real world problems and problem-solving.
  • Supporting science, technology, engineering, and math concepts among my students
  • Promoting teamwork and collaboration.
  • Giving students a greater understanding of and appreciation for the natural world.”

Question 2:

The Every Student Succeeds Act* indicates there is state funding “for activities and programs…supporting local educational agencies in providing programs and activities that…offer well-rounded education experiences…which may include…environmental education” to address student and school needs. In 2015, Wisconsin passed Joint Assembly Resolution 27, Wisconsin’s Children’s Outdoor Heritage Resolution, likewise affirmed “members of the Wisconsin legislature recognize that every Wisconsin child should continue to have the opportunity to: discover Wisconsin’s diverse wilderness;…breathe clean air and drink clean water; splash, play, swim and boat in clean lakes and rivers;…play in the dirt, plant a tree, and grow a garden,” among other things. How do you foresee Wisconsin schools playing a role in ensuring children have these experiences? *(Sec. 4104 State Use of Funds: (b)(3)(A)(i)(VI))

“I’ve read the resolution and it’s an ambitious vision for what children should be able to do in our Wisconsin environment and natural habitats. While I whole-heartedly agree with it, it’s something of a Pollyanna type of viewpoint considering that our legislature hasn’t made these priorities in the resolution a priority at all. There are many school children who don’t have access to these things – particularly when much of the burden is placed on parents to provide this opportunity, in a time when many parents must work, and in a time when nearly 14% of Wisconsin school children are living in poverty. In addition, there are many parts of this state, particularly in SW Wisconsin and Central Wisconsin that are experiencing contaminated groundwater and wells. So how does the school provide these opportunities in the resolution?

  • It must be accomplished through field trips and experiences to Wisconsin’s state parks and natural areas, marshes and protected wetlands to participate in activities such as play, hiking, and bird-watching.
  • As a parent and educator I’ve enjoyed joint ventures with UW Extension, the Department of Natural Resources, DPI, and county parks that provide learning opportunities such as counting trout in our streams, 4H activities, nature center programs, and teach a kid to fish days.
  • Many school districts have school gardens and school forests, and those activities should always be included and incorporated in school curriculum.”

Question 3:

The covid-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of outdoor learning as a safe practice and educational tool. How do you believe Wisconsin schools should continue to support outdoor learning practices following the pandemic?

“Many lessons can be adapted to be taught outside, and there are many opportunities for place-based or community-based education, where the classroom can be not just outside of school, but in other outdoor classrooms elsewhere in the community. Physical education is a class that comes to mind immediately because it can be accomplished around school grounds, at parks, state parks and county, and in outdoor recreational areas like ski centers, lakes, and swimming pools. Physical and life sciences can be taught outside in an outdoor lab environment
– whether it’s catching and harvesting maple syrup or catching and releasing trout or carp, or looking at the construction of dams.

Many school districts have strong FFA and agricultural education programs, and activities and exploration around agro-tourism, farming, and art can be accomplished outdoors. The point is, outdoor learning opportunities abound, and schools can demonstrate that every day curriculum standards and essential learning outcomes can be achieved outside as well as inside a building, and students get the opportunity to explore their own interests and find their passions within the curriculum parameters.”


Where to Vote: