(Update: Adding information, comment from Feinberg lawyer)
KIPP, one of the nation’s largest and best-known charter school networks, announced late Thursday that its leaders had fired co-founder Mike Feinberg after an investigation found credible evidence for allegations of sexual misconduct.
A letter issued by KIPP said that Feinberg denied misconduct but that an independent probe found that an allegation of sexual abuse by a student two decades ago had “credibility.” It also cited an allegation of sexual harassment against Feinberg that involved a financial settlement as well as another “credible” but uncorroborated allegation of sexual harassment. The letter said:
At KIPP, leadership integrity must be without compromise. Each of us is expected to put the safety, care and well-being of our students, alumni and staff above all else. In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued. We believe that Mr. Feinberg’s actions were incompatible with the leadership qualities that are central to our mission.
Feinberg said in a statement, released by his attorney, Chris Tritico:
I am disappointed by the allegations described today and by the actions taken against me by the KIPP Board. I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind. These allegations were thoroughly investigated by non-biased third parties who found no wrongdoing, and the action of the KIPP Board is very disheartening. My focus has always been to further the critical mission of KIPP, assist other schools in getting better, help all families succeed in life, and to support the advancements of our community. I remain committed to everyone we serve, and will continue to serve.
The news was likely to rock the charter school world, in which Feinberg was a giant. The KIPP network he co-founded in 1994 with Dave Levin has grown from a single charter school in Houston to a network of 209 schools and 90,000 students from preschool to high school in 31 regions across the country. That includes the District, where there are 16 KIPP schools.
The firing comes at a time when women are coming forward with charges of sexual harassment and abuse by men in numerous fields, which has become known as the #MeToo movement. Feinberg’s firing marks the first major #MeToo moment in education.
KIPP pioneered the “no excuses” brand of charter school education, referring to a theory of operation that there are no excuses for poor academic performance by low-income minority students and that the achievement gap can be closed with extremely strict behavioral codes, high expectations and long school days. KIPP’s motto: “No shortcuts. No excuses.”
Feinberg has been a well-known voice in the national debate about school choice and the spread of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. Expanding alternatives to traditional public schools, including initiatives that use public money to pay for private and religious school, is the main educational focus in the Trump administration.
School reformers such as Feinberg argue that some public schools are failing children, especially low-income minority students, and that options should be available to them. Most of KIPP’s students are minority and from low-income families.
Critics of charter schools say that charters — some of which are run by for-profit companies — are not as accountable to the public as traditional schools, and that they siphon resources from traditional public school districts that educate all children. Some critics also argue that the “no excuses” philosophy does not allow students to learn to challenge authority and be independent thinkers.
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education writer who wrote a book a decade ago about Feinberg and Levin, titled “Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America,” wrote in a recent Washington Post column that KIPP was the most successful charter network in the country.
The letter about Feinberg’s firing was signed by Richard Barth, chief executive of the KIPP Foundation, and Sehba Ali, superintendent of KIPP Houston Public Schools. Here is the letter, as posted on the KIPP Houston website:
Dear KIPP Team and Family,
We are writing to you with difficult news. Today, we are announcing the termination of our co-founder, Mike Feinberg, as a result of findings from an independent investigation into allegations of misconduct.
Although the incidents investigated allegedly occurred many years ago, and Mr. Feinberg categorically denies any wrongdoing, credible evidence was found of conduct that is incompatible with the mission and values of KIPP.
We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation.
The investigation was triggered last spring by an allegation of sexual abuse of a student by Mr. Feinberg in the late 1990s. The alleged conduct had not previously been reported to KIPP or the authorities.
Following the protocols we have established, KIPP immediately contacted Texas Child Protective Services.
KIPP Houston Public Schools then began its own investigation, which was carried out by KIPP Houston’s external counsel. After receiving initial findings in the fall, KIPP Houston and the KIPP Foundation jointly hired WilmerHale, a law firm with significant experience investigating allegations of sexual misconduct, to conduct a thorough independent investigation.
While neither investigation conclusively confirmed the initial allegation, which referenced events two decades ago, the investigators found the allegation to have credibility. Mr. Feinberg denies this allegation.
In the course of its work, WilmerHale presented evidence of sexual harassment by Mr. Feinberg involving an adult KIPP alumna who was employed by KIPP Houston in 2004, which led to a financial settlement at the time. A second credible harassment claim against Mr. Feinberg, involving another adult alumna employed by KIPP Houston from the same time period, could not be corroborated.
At KIPP, leadership integrity must be without compromise. Each of us is expected to put the safety, care-and well-being of our students, alumni and staff above all else. In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued. We believe that Mr. Feinberg’s actions were incompatible with the leadership qualities that are central to our mission.
As a result, the KIPP Foundation board and the KIPP Houston board have terminated Mr. Feinberg.
As we move forward from this decision, we want all members of our community to know that any incident of sexual misconduct, abuse or harassment is of grave concern to KIPP, and we offer unconditional support to anyone who comes forward. We encourage anyone who has experienced, or has knowledge of, any abuse or harassment to contact Bruce Berman or Danielle Conley, partners at WilmerHale. Any contact will be entirely confidential. Bruce can be reached at 202-663-6173 and Danielle can be reached at 202-663-6006. We are also thoroughly reviewing all of our organizational policies and practices to ensure that they protect every member of the KIPP community. Every day, thousands of KIPPsters — families, students, alumni and staff — put their trust in KIPP to operate with the highest levels of responsibility, integrity and transparency. It is to this standard that we expect every member of our team to adhere and to which we hold ourselves accountable.
Sehba Ali Superintendent KIPP Houston Public Schools
Richard Barth Chief Executive Officer KIPP Foundation