Looking back to honor a leader in education

Every child in Minnesota deserves an equal opportunity for a quality public school education, whether that child lives in Albert Lea or International Falls, Minneapolis or Anoka-Hennepin. Most people agree on that, but making that happen is something we and our legislative delegation have wrestled with for many years as our elected officials debate changes in Minnesota’s school funding system in an attempt to create equity.

Dennis Carlson

Dennis Carlson

Dr. Van D. Mueller of Andover was at the center of that struggle for many years. He spent much of his professional life involved in those debates, not only here in Minnesota, but throughout the nation. When Dr. Mueller passed away last month I felt the need to publicly recognize his accomplishments and contributions to education and this community.

His memorial service was attended by many Anoka-Hennepin administrators, teachers and former principals who wanted to pay respects to their mentor, a kind, humble man with a passion for bringing equity and adequacy to the education of kids. In his long career at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Mueller mentored over 300 mid-career educators, including many of ours, through the education policy fellows program, which he coordinated for 25 years.

He was also an advocate for parent involvement in education and served on the national board of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and as president of Minnesota PTA.

But he is probably known best throughout the nation for his solid, ground breaking work on educational finance issues. Those of you who have been following education in Anoka-Hennepin School District for some time may remember back to 1991 when we joined in a lawsuit with other school districts against the state of Minnesota. In simplest terms, the lawsuit said the wealth of a student’s community should not dictate the quality of his or her education. Dr. Mueller did the policy research that underpinned our case. The trial judge ruled in our favor, but the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the decision on appeal by a 5-2 vote, declaring that the education finance system meets the state’s constitutional requirement for a “general and uniform system of public schools.”

The debate continues today. Unfortunately, so does the inequity. It can be seen in lower class size and greater access to state-of-the-art technology in districts with greater funding, due primarily to greater property wealth. One example – we get $80 per student for our capital projects levy; Hopkins gets $911. A district with property wealth from business, industry and high value homes can generate more revenue than a district that is primarily residential. Not only do the “property rich” districts get more per student, but their taxpayers also pay less per student.

This remains a hard concept to explain to those not schooled in education finance. To make it easier to understand, Schools for Equity in Education, a consortium of “property poor” school districts, is working with Anoka-Hennepin and a couple of other districts to illustrate the inequity using an example we can all understand. It’s all about pizza.

A student from a property rich school district orders a pizza and is served up a large pie with all the extras. A student from a property poor district places the same order but gets a small, plain pizza.  The student is left to wonder, how can this be?

It’s about the inequity that Dr. Mueller spent most of his life trying to fix. He brought clarity to the volumes of school finance data and created a sense of urgency for change.

Some progress has been made, but the work is far from over. Dr. Mueller would be proud of our efforts to continue his good work. We offer our sincere sympathies to Dr. Mueller’s family and our thanks for sharing him with us in fighting the fight for equity for all students.

Dennis Carlson is the superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

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