Ousted KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg files suit against charter network

Mike Feinberg filed a lawsuit Thursday against KIPP, the charter school network he co-founded and whose board fired him in 2018 following allegations of sexual abuse and harrasment. 

The lawsuit, filed in Harris County District Court in Texas, accuses KIPP leadership of defaming Feinberg. KIPP’s public characterization of the allegations that led to Feinberg’s dismissal, the suit claims, destroyed his career and his reputation. 

“I’ve filed this lawsuit as my only other path toward being able to defend myself and restore my reputation,” Feinberg said in an interview with Chalkbeat. The suit is seeking damages over $1 million. 

KIPP criticized the suit in a statement. 

“This is a baseless and frivolous lawsuit,” said KIPP Houston CEO Sebha Ali and KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth. “We regret Mr. Feinberg is choosing to put the women who came forward to share painful experiences, the witnesses who supported them, and the entire KIPP community through further distress.”

KIPP, one of the country’s largest and most academically successful charter networks, fired Feinberg last February amid allegations of sexual abuse of a student in the late 1990s and two claims of sexual harassment of adult KIPP alumni. The decision sent shockwaves through the education world, where Feinberg had been a prominent figure for 25 years. 

According to KIPP, external investigators found the allegations against Feinberg credible, but could not conclusively confirm them. The findings have not been publicly released in full.

“At a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” wrote the leaders of KIPP Houston and the national KIPP Foundation in a letter announcing his dismissal. “We believe that Mr. Feinberg’s actions were incompatible with the leadership qualities that are central to our mission.”

Feinberg denied the allegations at the time and did so again in an interview with Chalkbeat. 

Feinberg did say that it’s possible for close relationships between teachers, students, and their families — part of what the suit describes as KIPP’s “team and family culture” — to be misconstrued. 

“If there was one part of what KIPP wrote that I thought made sense, it was the statement that I put myself in situations where my actions could be misconstrued,” he said. “That was the whole mission and ethos of KIPP — to do things that other people saw as push[ing] the boundary. KIPP was all about building relationships with families and communities outside of the school walls.” 

He denied, though, that he ever did anything that could have been seen as harassment or abuse.

A KIPP spokesperson offered a sharp rebuke: “Any educator or attorney knows the difference between a close relationship between a teacher and a student based on academic and nonacademic support — and behavior that could in any way be construed as sexually inappropriate. They are miles apart, and an adult should know that.”

The lawsuit says that Feinberg was informed of an allegation against him while visiting a KIPP high school in April 2017. There, an assistant principal told Feinberg that a student told her that he had raped the student’s cousin.

That triggered an initial investigation, conducted by an external lawyer. At its conclusion, in a letter to Feinberg dated August 2017, KIPP Houston superintendent Ali wrote, “Other than what the former student alleges, now almost 20 years after the alleged acts, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing.” (Feinberg characterizes this as “clearing” him. KIPP has denied that, and the letter doesn’t use that term, though it does describe the matter as “closed.”)

A subsequent investigation is the one that led to Feinberg’s firing. Feinberg claims that the second investigation was opened because KIPP’s leaders wanted a different result. 

“The process was grossly unfair but KIPP saw it as necessary to effect and support Mike’s ouster: an outcome that … was predetermined by at least two KIPP board members, Richard Barth and Dave Levin,” the suit alleges, referring to KIPP’s CEO and its other co-founder, respectively. “What mattered most to KIPP was that Mike be removed and his career be ruined.”

(The letter to Feinberg dismissing him said that “questions remained” after the first probe.)

In an interview, Feinberg said he wasn’t sure what could have prompted Barth and Levin — who founded KIPP with Feinberg in 1994 — to want him removed; the suit didn’t offer evidence to support that claim. 

“There has been some chatter that suggest that,” said Feinberg’s lawyer, Mano DeAyala. “I think in discovery that’s going to be developed more.”

The suit says that on the day he was fired, Feinberg met with KIPP Houston board chair Bill Boyar and a lawyer from WilmerHale. According to the suit, Boyar suggested Feinberg voluntarily resign. Feinberg and his attorney said they would consider this, but soon after, news stories appeared in the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle about Feinberg’s firing.

“KIPP’s stealth sourcing of this exclusive story in the New York Times was the first step of KIPP’s deliberate, purposeful, and coordinated defamation of Mike’s character and the destruction of his professional reputation,” the suit says.

The suit also takes issue with KIPP’s characterization of a 2004 financial settlement that KIPP Houston made after claims of sexual harassment by an employee and KIPP alumni against Feinberg. The lawsuit says the settlement was decided against Feinberg’s wishes and was known to KIPP leaders. “WilmerHale did not ‘uncover’ the incident,” the suit says.

Although the suit is seeking over $1 million in damages, Feinberg says the central purpose of his suit is to restore his reputation. He said he would donate any amount he wins to “K-12 causes.”

Months after he was dismissed, Feinberg started a new organization known as the Texas Schools Venture Fund, aimed at helping individuals, particularly KIPP alumni, start charter schools. Its board includes a number of leaders in the charter school movement, and it has been funded in part by Laura and John Arnold, Texas philanthropists who have backed charter schools. 

Meanwhile, KIPP CEO Barth said in July that the network has not been substantially impacted by Feinberg’s departure.

“Obviously this was not a great moment, but Mike’s role in those final years was very external. His main focus was on Capitol Hill, university partnerships, external relationships, that was it,” he said. “So his departure meant, of course, we had to make sure we’re doing a good job in Austin and on Capitol Hill and with college partners … I think it would be a stretch to name a big impact.”

Kalyn Belsha contributed reporting.