Mike Ciresi on education equity: ‘We’re in it for the long term’

Mike CiresiMike Ciresi

Mike Ciresi has never been accused of being a quiet man. The most famous of the courtroom victories to come of his four decades as a trial attorney was the $6 billion the tobacco industry paid in 1998 to settle a suit with the state of Minnesota. Before that, there were big cases against Union Carbide over its role in the Bhopal disaster and high-stakes cases involving injuries and deaths caused by IUDs.

And of course there were his two attempts, one in 2000 and one in 2008, to win the DFL endorsement for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

It’s interesting, then, that the work of the charitable concern Ciresi and his colleagues started using some of the firm’s fees in the tobacco case has flown largely under the radar. Never mind that in 14 years of grantmaking, the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children has directed millions of dollars toward some of the Twin Cities’ most intriguing education efforts. Much of that spending has been on the kinds of wonky, unsexy investments that propel real change, even if they don’t make for glossy photos for the law firm’s annual report.

Among other initiatives, the foundation has underwritten the early-childhood-education advocacy work of Ready 4 K (now known as Think Small) and the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), on whose board Ciresi served. It paid for an outside analysis of Minneapolis Public Schools’ hiring and retention practices with an eye toward strengthening its teacher and principal corps.

It paid for a principal training program in St. Paul Public Schools, and it stepped in last year with stopgap financing for the odds-beating Minneapolis charter  Harvest Prep, which lacked an affordable way of borrowing to offset the shortfall caused by the state’s school financing shift.

Most notably, earlier this spring the foundation created an advertising campaign designed to create support for education reforms being debated in the Capitol. One of the ads — which ran on MinnPost, among other media outlets, and in downtown skyways — urged support for a controversial bill that would have ended quality-blind teacher layoffs in Minnesota. Known colloquially as LIFO, for last-in, first out, the measure was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Ciresi recently talked to MinnPost about the foundation’s work, the decision to spend more directly on advocacy and the odds that an equity-minded lawyer would take on an educational adequacy suit and whether it could pave the way for another Minnesota Miracle. An edited transcript of that conversation follows:

MinnPost: How did you come to create a foundation that concentrates on education?

Mike Ciresi: When we brought the tobacco litigation, the primary reason, apart from the fact they’re killing 400,000 Americans every year and doing it with impunity, was that they were recruiting youth and they were lying about the addictiveness of cigarettes. Cigarette companies exist by recruiting the next cohort of smokers. So it was really an industry that was targeted toward youth.

At the end of the case we said we wanted to form this foundation. The emphasis almost from day one was on children’s issues. We gravitated toward education because it’s the civil-rights issue of our time. I really, truly believe that to be the case. Unless and until we educate all of our children and provide them equal opportunity, I don’t think we’re going to create the conditions for America to prosper as it has in the past.

It’s so vital today. We have again, as we had between the 1800s and the 1900s, a lot of immigrants. Different factors are at play in the world, but there’s a lot of parallels that can be drawn. We need to make sure that all of our kids have an opportunity to get a fair education. With the disparities we see, obviously we’re not giving that. Minnesota is among the worst case in terms of the disparity between children of color and white children. That’s been the motivation driving the foundation toward systemic change in the educational field.

Because we are smaller we try to take not a shotgun approach but a rifle approach. We get focused and we have a lot of sustainability. In other words, we’re in it for the long term. An example: You could put [money] into food for kids at school, which is extremely important. It has to be done. You’d see an immediate impact. We tend to go to things that are going to take maybe a little bit longer but really change the system or have the potential for systemic change.

MP: In addition to spending on programmatic things, you recently began spending on advocacy.

MC: Yes, it was our first time. We’re not intending to do that a lot. [Our ads] talked about the issues that we were funding and tried to get the attention of the decision-makers and the opinion-changers in our community to get focused on this issue a little bit more. We’ve had very, very positive feedback.

You’ve got to get to the grassroots. We need to mobilize the public to understand and embrace these issues. The business community understands this. They’ve been very, very good on this. They’ve supported it. They’ve advocated for it and what we need to do is get the general public to more deeply appreciate and understand what impact this is going to have on the state down the road. We need an educated work force.

MP: Did there come a point where you thought, we can keep spending, we can keep making individual grants to very worthy endeavors, but could we really push the needle?

MC: You put your finger on something. We’ve made, since our inception, a little over $12 million in grants, probably approaching $13 million. We’re small but we’ve had a big impact because we’ve been sort of a catalyst and a trendsetter.

As I looked at the philanthropic field, I kept seeing that we would do something and somebody else would do something and somebody else would do something and all in the same field but there’s not coordinated effort. So how do you get to that point that you’re talking about, that tipping point where you get real momentum behind programs and behind policy? I think that’s where we’re at right now, and I think a lot of philanthropic organizations are understanding that.

That was part of our purpose of our advocacy, to get this momentum behind this effort. It’s absolutely critical for this state’s future. People are starting to understand it but, and I don’t mean to be political, we need to get people in office who will understand this and embrace it.

MP: Your campaign and a similar one created by the education reform group MinnCAN, to which you have made grants, this year seem to be very clearly trying to send a signal to folks at the Capitol that the public has their backs.

MC: They do. Did you see the polls on this? It’s overwhelming.

MP: Yes. And yet it didn’t take.

MC: If you look at the teacher tenure bill, it passed. Now, I’ll grant you not too many people on my side of the aisle supported it. There were very few courageous ones that did, and the governor vetoed it.

MP: The irony is there were a number of DFLers who supported it last year who didn’t sign on this year.

MC: Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s easy for me to sit back here and criticize the people who are in office but the fact is I think that was vetoed because of Education Minnesota. There’s not any question about it, at least in my mind.

Now, when you’re sitting there deciding what you’re going to do it’s a different situation because you’ve got to pick and choose and you’ve got to try to put together coalitions. You’ve got to keep some people together. I understand all that, but this is about our children and about our future. I can’t think of a more critical issue. I’m all for the Vikings stadium, by the way, but it’s not more important than getting our kids educated.

MP: For me, there was some irony in watching that discussion happen at the Legislature and watching Minneapolis Public Schools tell Harvest Prep founder Eric Mahmoud that they’d give him four more charters over the next 10 years.

MC: Our hope — and look, the jury’s out — is that you can bring Harvest Prep to scale so that you can have a systemic change across all of north Minneapolis and something that can be replicated in other districts. The proof is going to be in the pudding as to whether that can be done.

There are a lot of factors and a lot of sectors that have to be pushing behind it. You need the private sector, the philanthropic sector. You need a superintendant who’s willing to do it and [MPS’] Bernadeia Johnson was willing to put her backside on the line, let me just be blunt about it.

I think your question is very, very important and that is, can something like Harvest be brought to scale and replicated? I believe it can be if you have the right management tools. I think Eric Mahmoud has those abilities, but as he gets bigger he’s going to find out that presents more and more challenges, which are opportunities. Our hope is that he’ll be successful in this, and I believe he will be.

MP: Is there a conversation going on among local philanthropic concerns about advocacy?

MC: I’ve talked to some people. We’ve convened a number of conferences on education here where we had all the major foundations in and that issue was raised. The issue of fragmentation was raised. I think what advocacy does is it enables the philanthropic community as a whole to see that there is an effort or a thrust in a certain area and they can join forces and bring it to a new level. That’s what we try to do. We try to say, this is really a critical issue.

My hope is that by the small advocacy program we did that others will say, yeah, we should put more effort into this, and that those with more resources will join in and create this grassroots groundswell of support that I talked about earlier that will then move toward the policymakers and the legislature and get fundamental change. We’re going to get there.

I’m probably too restless. When I see something that I think is wrong that should be changed, I want to get it changed now. I look at education and I go, “Don’t tell me it’s going to be five years, we’re going to lose another generation.”

MP: You have written persuasively about Minnesota’s failure to deliver on its constitutional guarantee of an adequate education for every child. Financially, anyhow, it would seem times have rarely been tougher. So how about a lawsuit?

MC: As you know, our constitution provides for equal education for everybody, and obviously that’s not being provided. The real issue there would be what the remedy would be. How does the court effectuate a remedy where the funding is just non-existent? You can’t appropriate monies. You can say this must be done but then, somehow, the state would have to come up with the money to do it.

It’s a very intriguing issue, and I hope it doesn’t come to that. This may sound strange to you but, as a trial lawyer, I’ve always said the last place you want to be is in a courtroom because you’ve really taken the ability to make the decision out of your hands and placed it into a third party’s hands, be it a judge or a jury. If you can make the decision and control the decision, you ought to do it.

The law is, I think, probably, today, the most responsive branch of government. I really believe that. We can all say we vote but, depending upon whether it’s a local, state or national election, we’re one of multitudes. In a courtroom, you can change the course of history, change things immediately. The court can order it done; then the Legislature has to find the money.

We’re just watching it. My hope is that we don’t have to do that, that we should be able to present a persuasive enough picture to a rational legislative body to get the change.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (12)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/30/2012 - 10:22 am.

    “quality-blind teacher layoffs”

    That is a value-laden, false depiction of the call to end teacher tenure and seniority rules. Seniority is a way to PROTECT quality teaching. Almost all research on teacher quality shows that the first few years of a teacher’s career are his/her worst years, no matter to training. LIFO layoffs first layoff the last hired – those who are almost by definition the worst teachers. That can hardly be called “quality blind.” It is in fact the opposite. Stop using the deformer’s cliche tropes to describe education issues.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 05/30/2012 - 11:06 am.

    Educational reforms

    I lived in the Washington, DC suburbs a few years ago when DC attempted major educational reforms and it cost the school superintendant and the mayor their jobs. The reforms such as teacher senority as pushed in MN were a disaster. Nobody wants to answer the question what makes a quality teacher? Who decides who is fired for poor performance and not politics.
    Education needs to be a coalition not shotgun changes by the state legislaure.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/30/2012 - 02:05 pm.

    If a rich democrat wants to help …

    provide decent educational opportunities for poor children but finds it difficult to get it done because his party is beholden to a labor union, he can do so by sponsoring scholarships to pay the tuition to send kids to private schools.

    $13 million would pay the tuition for over a thousand poor kids to go to Minnehaha Academy or Cretin, or a similar school. That’d be a good start. And I bet Mr. Ciresi and his friends could come up with even MORE money.

    Republicans (who don’t have Mr. Ciresi’s wealth) have continually tried to provide taxpayer-financed school vouchers in places like Washington DC and elsewhere but the democrats always block their attempts. The democrats kind of mumble when asked why, so it’s hard to determine their reasoning.

    So as the Obama girls attend Sidwell Friends with the children of other DC swells, tens of thousands of poor black kids are trapped in disfunctional government schools in our nation’s capital and elsewhere.

  4. Submitted by Valerie Olsen-Rittler on 05/30/2012 - 05:34 pm.

    Power and Influence

    Here’s another “civil rights crusader” with considerable political and social capital who can pour millions into privatizing public education.

  5. Submitted by Morna McDermott on 05/30/2012 - 08:03 pm.


    the use of terms like “civil rights” by billionaires who use education reform to line their stock portfolios and political clout is shameless! The web of corporate greed via policy and legislation is no longer even a secret-so please stop lying to the public and proclaim your efforts as humanitarian in any way. The real data and facts show increased profits to education “entrepreneurs” while community schools starve. And the so-called “solutions” in vouchers and charter schools have demonstrated no greater student improvement than their public school counterparts, and in fact have increases racial segregation, and can cherry pick their students-where do the rest go? right into the prison pipeline? what part of this contributes to civil rights i ask?
    http://www.unitedoptout.com We don’t negotiate with children’s lives. Do you?

  6. Submitted by Jim Barnhill on 05/31/2012 - 02:15 am.

    Right Cause/Wrong Courtroom

    Watching a movie on the big screen where a big time lawyer fights for justice and wins a decision for the little guy is surely inspiring, but Mr. Ciresi may find one day that in fighting for the just cause of public education, he has been fighting in the wrong courtroom without making any impact at all.

    The need and urgency to have a well educated citizenry is clear to us all. You certainly don’t need to be a CEO in the business community to know that. And the demographics of the future, no the demographics now, demand that teachers become the multi-cultural/multi-lingual people that our society is becoming as well if we are to be the kind of society that is capable of passing the care of its elderly to future generations.

    So, what is Mr. Ciresi spending his time and money on? Small potatoes, that’s what.
    Small potato #1: “Advocacy” (read- small political agenda) Small potato education reform attempts to end “last in first out,” will, if and when it comes to pass, have so little impact on education results as to be forgotten forever… (unless of course it has the negative impact of shutting up the professional teacher who dares to express opinion that may not tow the company line). The impact of LIFO has been so overblown by the “advocates” of its end, that locals are actually starting to believe that snake oil will actually have radical education results. Right cause, Mr. Ciresi. Wrong courtroom. Even if LIFO ends, no one will ever see major growth from such a change.

    Small potato #2: take a model of education that has worked for some students at Harvest Prep (and led to a high rate of teacher turn-over) and sell it as a great idea for all of Minneapolis. But the questions need to be asked, if this “odds-beating” school leads teacher after teacher out of the profession, how can this be a good idea for the students of the future?

    Small potato #3: Okay, this is not Mr. Cerisi’s small potato, it’s a small potato that belongs to all of us. We claim that the challenges of education must be addressed now and addressed decisively at the risk of being unable to educate generations of kids. We acknowledge that the world is simultaneously changing so fast that graduating seniors will need to ignore much of what they learned as freshmen. And what myths do we accept in the midst of such a great challenge? The civil rights issue of our time? We accept the myth that our nation is capable of accomplishing this massive multi-cultural challenge with massive class sizes OR HIGHER. We tell ourselves that the cost is cheap, that all our kids really need is a great teacher in every classroom (but good luck ever gaining that person’s attention). We tell ourselves that the factory model of education doesn’t work, so let’s make it a bigger factory. We tell ourselves that the only potato we need to educate our ever diverse student population is a cheap potato.

    Put simply, if Mr. Cerisi would be a true hero, he would “advocate” that we will never see the results we need to see by doing anything less that paying for our nations kids to be in rooms where they get adequate attention from highly skilled teachers. That argument takes guts. I am glad people of Mr. Cerisi’s stature argue for just causes, but we would all be better off if he was in the right courtroom.

    Jim Barnhill
    Recording Secretary
    Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

  7. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/31/2012 - 08:51 am.


    The republican party does not care about education. The party simply wants to shut down the teacher unions and every other union to gain more control of the political system. The public schools have been cheated out of money by Pawlenty and other republicans for many years, but they still expect the schools to produce miracles. They do nothing to improve the quality of life for poor people but demand that teachers solve all the problems of children from poor families. Their solution is always religious private schools and vouchers, but the MN constitution provides for public education, not religious indoctrination.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/31/2012 - 12:06 pm.

      So you admit it

      “The party simply wants to shut down the teacher unions and every other union to gain more control of the political system.” So you admit that the teachers union is not about education but about a political movement? Thanks for being so honest. It explains why the kids are just an afterthought in the government schools, taking a back seat to labor union arguments about money and work rules.

      Parents who really care about their kids’ education send them elsewhere and we all know it.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/31/2012 - 10:05 pm.


        The republican party has no interest in education, kids or workers. The republican party just pays homage to corporate America.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/31/2012 - 09:14 am.

    I’m not comfortable in a courtroom

    But a courtroom is, frankly, where I’d like to see this issue taken. I understand Mr. Ciresi’s lack of enthusiasm for putting the outcome in the hands of a third party, but the first two parties have so far not done very well. The state constitution could not be more clear about what’s expected in Minnesota educationally. Equally clear is the legislature’s absolute failure to provide what is constitutionally mandated. I’ve not lived here long enough to know if that failure is so long-standing as to be a state tradition, but it’s blatantly obvious, whether long-standing or something recent.

    If it’s long-standing, then the right wing of recent vintage can’t be held totally responsible, since it’s my understanding that moderate Republicans and the DFL have been in charge in Minnesota more often than not, even going back to the days of “nonpartisan” legislators. If the failure is more recent, then the Pawlenty years and the current crop of Republicans – the people, in other words, responsible for “shifting” state funding away from schools to meet the budget shortfall – are responsible.

    An old, broken-down career teacher, though I’ve now been out of the classroom for a long time, I’m inclined, of course, to agree with arguments from Rob Levine and Jim Barnhill, but with an important caveat. New teachers frequently are not very good – in a classroom setting, there’s quite a bit of truth to the adage that experience makes a difference – but I don’t think it’s automatic that the new teacher is vastly inferior to the experienced one. That’s why the school districts in the state where I taught, and presumably in Minnesota as well, have a probationary period (usually 3 years) during which both the current performance and the potential of new teachers is, in theory at least, closely observed. Tenure isn’t granted, or at least SHOULDN’T be granted, until that judgment has been made.

    If you’re laying people off for budgetary reasons, keeping the experienced hands in the classroom is a logical approach. In addition, I’d add, tenure is a vitally important concept for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with budgetary shortfalls. It’s an important method of preserving at least some shred of academic freedom in elementary and secondary classrooms from the threat posed by ideologues of right or left in administration and on the school board of the local district. I speak to this from personal experience.

    I confess that I’m underwhelmed by Mr. Barnhill’s “courtroom” analogies, but I think he’s correct about the impact of eliminating LIFO. It doesn’t strike me as the “silver bullet” issue that will magically transform underperforming students into Rhodes Scholars. I say that even though, if it were up to me, LIFO would be history.

    And that’s my caveat. Tenure is important, and it makes sense to me, but I’ve never thought of it as an “absolute” guarantee because, at least in the school district where I spent 30 years, it was not. Unlike what I’ve read about LIFO, I was evaluated annually by an administrator. Feedback from parents and students was taken in to account, along with my participation in non-classroom school activities and other faculty functions and responsibilities. People who’d acquired tenure, but who contributed nothing to the school beyond showing up in their classrooms every day, often found their jobs at risk when our enrollment dropped as the Baby Boom ended. They were more likely to be retained than the new hire fresh from college, but it wasn’t automatic, and they were not necessarily more likely to be retained than another colleague who’d taught the same number of years, but who was more actively involved in the school as a community.

    Education, to be successful, is never going to be “cost-effective.” Children REQUIRE individual attention. You hope they’re getting that at home, but whether their homes lives are idyllic or from hell, they deserve individual attention at school, and individual attention is going to be expensive. If the rhetoric of reformers from both right and left is to be believed, it OUGHT to be expensive. Good teachers are knowledgeable about their subjects, about children, and about theories of learning. That sort of preparation isn’t free, and those who’ve done that preparation have earned satisfactory compensation.

    Lest it all sound too critical, I’m delighted to see Mr. Ciresi devoting time and money to what is – and in this I totally agree – the civil rights issue of our time. Until there truly is equal educational opportunity for children everywhere in the state, we’re ignoring a constitutional mandate, and lying to ourselves in the process.

  9. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 05/31/2012 - 02:09 pm.

    Where is the courage?

    Mr. Ciresis talks about courage to take a stand.

    Dayton’s veto sided with the American Academies of Research, RAND Research, and Educational Testing Services research on the caution from using test scores for high stakes hiring decisions. 35% of the new evaluation system is test scores.

    It is a cowardly cop out to say Dayton sided with Education Minnesota. He sided with the research!

    True courage would be a fight to fully fund kindergartners and targeted pre-k funding. Ciresi used to understand that. How many bills came up to fully fund kindergarten and targeted pre-k? ZERO. Those two items are backed by mountains of research of what is good for kids.

    So, it lacks courage to side with research on what is good for kids?

    Apparently it takes courage to side with A.L.E.C. and Students First in their quest to privatize schools.

    All along Dayton wanted to focus on pre-k and K. Where was the courage to support that?

    As far as HArvest Prep, take a good luck at how they support teacher collaboration and a systemwide structure of interdependence and formative assessments instead of cumulative. That has a heck of a lot more to do with their success than anything else. Implement RTI, PLC’s, Data Teams, statewide. That’s what they do.

    But wait, those things are hard to explain and cost money. Nevermind.

  10. Submitted by Dan McGuire on 06/01/2012 - 11:31 am.

    teacher layoffs

    I agree with Rob Levine that “quality-Blind” is a false representation of the current LIFO system. So far, experience has been proven to be the best correlate to quality teaching.Until another way to measure teaching quality is proven, it would be extremely unwise to end the current system.

    It is true that it could take many years to reach consensus on a new method of measuring teaching quality, but if the current system is jettisoned it will leave us with no system. Having no system will be a disaster and end up being very expensive. The only thing we know for sure about ending the current system is that it will reduce the influence of the union. The obvious intent of the attempt to end LIFO is to reduce the influence of the union, not to improve learning outcomes.

    The real question we need to be asking is “Why are we laying off teachers?” and “Who hired these teachers that need to be layed off?” Let’s work at the problem from that end. Let’s make the changes to the system that will reduce the need to layoff teachers and improve learning outcomes – like improve facilities, improve transportation, improve access to current literacy tools.

Leave a Reply