How KIPP’s observers and allies are reacting to co-founder Mike Feinberg’s firing

A day after one of the education reform movement’s most prominent figures was fired, his colleagues are grappling with their shock over the allegations that led to his termination and with what the news might mean for the schools he founded and the movement as a whole.

The KIPP charter network fired Mike Feinberg, its co-founder, Thursday after revealing that a law firm hired by the network to investigate found credible allegations of sexual abuse of a child in the 1990s and sexual harassment of two adult KIPP employees. Feinberg denies the allegations, which were not definitively substantiated.

What are people who have followed Feinberg, KIPP, and the charter movement thinking today? We asked a number of them. Here’s some of what they said.

First, from Richard Barth, KIPP’s CEO: “This morning 100,000 KIPPsters went to school across the country – nearly 90,000 in our schools and over 10,000 on college campuses. This organization is bigger than one person and while this is a difficult day in our history our KIPPsters and families are depending on us. We are thoroughly reviewing all of our organizational policies and practices to ensure that they protect every member of the KIPP community.”

Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which is generally supportive of charters: “I really don’t think of this as a charter schools issue. The #metoo movement is an equal opportunity movement that is showing up everywhere. For me, this is just another reminder that these kinds of issues can pop up anywhere, anytime, with neighbors and with icons. We just have to have good systems in place so they are dealt with fairly and effectively.”

Mike Petrilli of the pro-charter Fordham Institute: “This is a sad day for all of us in education reform. Either one of the heroes of our movement is a monster, or he has been the victim of a terrible injustice. KIPP is no doubt in for some tough sledding, but assuming they handled the allegations appropriately, they will get through it. And they should get through it, because they continue to do amazing work for kids on a daily basis.”

Jeff Henig, a professor and longtime observer of education policy at Columbia University: “For various reasons, at least a little steam seems to have been escaping from the charter movement, so this could be a delicate time to take on any extra baggage. Charter networks like KIPP depend on public bodies — authorizers, school boards, district administrators — for a range of things including funding, access to buildings, contracts, and their charters themselves. Even when public officials can intellectually distinguish between an organization and one bad actor, they remain highly sensitive to public opinion. With the #MeToo movement roiling the waters of voter sentiment, at least some officials may find it easier to look elsewhere.”

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: “The National Alliance believes creating safe spaces for all is a core premise of public education, and one that we work towards every day. These jarring allegations — especially against someone with ties to the public school ecosystem — are antithetical to everything our community stands for. We support the actions taken by KIPP leadership to proactively and thoroughly investigate and subsequently terminate Mr. Feinberg.”

Dacia Toll, co-founder and president of Achievement First charter schools: “While this news is incredibly upsetting, KIPP is bigger than any one individual. Over many years in many communities, KIPP has established a strong legacy of excellence and a commitment to doing what’s right. Their values are on display even in how they are handling this difficult situation.”

Some people defended Feinberg, which in turn led to a sharp backlash.

Jeanne Allen, head of the Center for Education Reform: “Mike Feinberg’s long time, unassailable record of integrity, honesty and commitment to putting kids first and his outright denial of the allegations, lead me to question the findings of KIPP’s lawyers and management and thus their decision to move Mike out without ever giving him a chance to respond to the allegations. This is not coming from an uncritical fan — I have had differences with Mike on policy for years, but I still respect his work and accomplishments and have seen him enough in action to know these are likely scurrilous charges. If he or anyone else is guilty of sexual misconduct they should be dismissed immediately. But I have doubts that this is the case.”

Allen’s support for Feinberg in a tweet Thursday prompted a number of critical responses.

“I’m heartbroken & angry that you think an independent investigation that confirmed ‘credible evidence that is incompatible with the mission and values of KIPP’ isn’t enough to NOT give someone the benefit of the doubt,” responded Kate Duval, the head of external relations for the group 50CAN.

“Neither good work nor service entitles a man to the benefit of the doubt when accused of sexual assault or harassment. No matter who they are,” wrote Matt Richmond of EdBuild.

A few others on Twitter — John Arnold of the Arnold Foundation and Nelson Smith, a former senior advisor at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — have emphasized Feinberg’s past work rather than the allegations against him, or the fact that they were deemed credible by KIPP.

Rishawn Biddle, who runs the site Dropout Nation, seemed to allude to this in his own statement: “The big question is how will leaders in the school reform movement address what has happened? So far, a few leading figures have chosen to not make strong, unwavering calls for all leaders in the movement, and in American public education as a whole, to engage in good conduct, especially when it comes to working with children, at all times. At the same time, I’m not necessarily surprised with the responses so far. One reason is because the movement itself has long struggled with holding its own leading lights to account.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Nelson Smith is a senior advisor at NACSA; in fact, he is a former senior advisor to the group.