In Texas certification hearing, ousted KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg faces sexual abuse claim

This story is a collaboration between Chalkbeat and The Texas Tribune.

The high-profile co-founder of a nationally acclaimed charter school network faced a de facto trial this week in Austin over a sexual abuse allegation that cost him his job in 2018.

The case wasn’t a criminal one. Instead, it was an administrative hearing to determine if Mike Feinberg, a longtime face of KIPP, can keep his Texas educator certificate.

Feinberg, who helped build the nation’s largest network of nonprofit charter schools, was ousted by KIPP officials in 2018 over the sexual abuse and harassment allegations. He’s repeatedly denied the charges, and has retained support among some long-time allies in the charter school movement. He’s since started a new organization called Texas School Venture Fund and worked as a consultant at the Center for Education Reform, a D.C.-based group that supports charters and vouchers.

The allegation of abuse first surfaced in 2017, when a student at a KIPP high school said her cousin had been “raped” by Feinberg. The assistant principal told Feinberg, whose lawyers say instructed her to start an investigation, tell the superintendent, and notify Child Protective Services.

“You know the protocol,” Feinberg said, according to his lawyers. “Does a guilty man do that? Does a guilty man tell them to call the authorities to investigate him?”

KIPP launched two investigations, the second of which said there was credible evidence that Feinberg sexually abused a student and sexually harassed a KIPP employee.

That led to his firing in 2018, though Feinberg has categorically denied the allegations.

A letter of termination sent to him said the evidence showed “at a minimum, you put yourself in a situation in which your conduct could be misconstrued.”

It was a stunning fall — and to Feinberg’s lawyer Chris Tritico, “flat wrong.”

The full results of the charter network’s investigations have not been released publicly. No criminal charges have been brought against Feinberg. He is suing KIPP for defamation.

The Texas Education Agency brought the case to revoke Feinberg’s state teaching certification last spring, a move that could limit his ability to work in schools.

During two days of proceedings this week, administrative law judges Beth Bierman and Robert Pemberton heard testimony in the closest thing yet to a trial over the allegations. It will be several months before the judges make a finding of fact and issue a recommendation on whether Feinberg should have his certificate revoked or receive a lesser punishment. Texas’ State Board for Educator Certification, housed in the Education Agency, will make the final decision.

The state administrative code requires a teaching certificate to be revoked if an educator engaged in or “solicited any sexual contact or romantic relationship with a student or minor.”

Together, the two days of testimony offered the most graphic and detailed account of an accusation that Feinberg sexually abused a young girl in Houston in the late 1990s under the pretext of a medical examination.

It was also the first time Feinberg was able to challenge the former student’s claims in a public setting. His lawyers called more than a dozen witnesses, including several former KIPP employees and students, to refute details of her account. His wife, a former KIPP teacher, was among those who spoke.

“This is the only chance he’s gotten to fight this thing,” Tritico said in an interview. “This is the first time and only time he’s gotten to stand up and say, ‘I didn’t do this.’ … He needs a ruling here to vindicate himself. Even if it’s symbolic — it’s everything to him.”

Feinberg — who again denied the allegations in his testimony — said he was not told the details of the accusation until after he was fired. He also said he hadn’t had a lawyer represent him during either investigation because “I didn’t do anything wrong and I wanted to fully cooperate … and be fully transparent to help the truth come out.”

“I am pleased finally to be getting due process and for a chance for all the evidence to be heard in this matter,” Feinberg said in a statement after the hearing.

In a petition calling for the hearing, a TEA lawyer said Feinberg performed a “yearly check up” on the former student, then a fifth-grader attending KIPP in Houston in the late 1990s. While the two were in his office, the petition says, he placed his hand inside her shirt and rubbed up and down between her breasts and belly button. He had her “touch her toes while he ran his finger from her neck to her waist,” it says.

A week or two later, Feinberg is alleged to have told the student he lost the file and had to redo the exam. He “took her back to his office,” closed the door and had her partially disrobe, the TEA petition claims. He inserted a Q-Tip into her vagina for a few seconds and then instructed her to return to class, it says. He was a teacher and the principal of the school at the time.

In testimony at the certification hearing Wednesday, the former student said she “felt confused.” She put on her clothes, went back to class and told her mother about it after returning home. Though her mother was upset, the student asked her not to share the information with her father. “I thought my dad was going to blame me for it and hit me,” she testified. He had a history of doing so, she said.

Asked why she didn’t tell the school or police, the student, responded: “They wouldn’t believe me because of my race.” She said she wanted to leave the school right away but her mother didn’t know how to explain it to her father. She left a year later. “I wasn’t comfortable no more,” she said.

The student’s mother largely confirmed her daughter’s account.

“I was in very bad shape. I started crying with her,” the mother testified through a Spanish translator. “I wanted to say something but my daughter didn’t let me. We needed to talk to my husband but we were scared of him because he was very strict and tough with her and with me.”

Feinberg’s lawyers worked to dismantle the student’s testimony. Feinberg sat pensively observing, sometimes taking notes on a yellow legal pad, during much of the testimony. He winked at his wife as he sat down to testify; they clutched hands after he finished speaking and rejoined his lawyers at their table.

“That did not happen … absolutely not,” Feinberg responded to detailed questions about the student’s allegations. Asked if he contended she was lying, he gave a long pause: “I contend that what she is saying are not the facts.” Asked why she would lie, he said: “That would just be speculation.”

Addressed as “Student 1” throughout the proceeding, the student had an older brother who was expelled from KIPP for stealing around the same time the “medical exam” incidents were alleged to have happened, Feinberg’s lawyers said. The student’s mother confirmed the brother’s expulsion and answered affirmatively when Feinberg’s lawyer asked, “That did not sit very well with you and your family, correct?”

“You were angry about the way he was treated and the way he was expelled, right?” Tritico asked. It was unclear if he was expelled before or after the alleged abuse.”

Feinberg said the brother had stolen a Gameboy from another sixth-grader and lied about it. School officials thought it was unfortunate he would likely have to be expelled, but that it could be a “teachable moment” for his peers. They gathered them in a room to weigh whether he should be removed from the school.

“His family was extremely upset at the way we were handling that,” he said.

Much of the lawyers’ questioning centered on discrepancies between various accounts the student gave different investigators and agencies after the allegation first surfaced in 2017. On the witness stand, she didn’t contest that her recitation had changed over time, estimating that she’d recounted the events more than a dozen times since then.

There were differing versions of whether the student had met Feinberg at his office, or been escorted there by him. It was also unclear if other administrators were sitting at desks in an open space outside Feinberg’s office when she went there for the “check ups.” And the lawyer suggested the student at one point said Feinberg instructed nearby employees “do not disturb us” before one of the visits. That comment was not part of her testimony Wednesday.

Former KIPP employees and students enrolled at the Houston school at the same time attempted to cast doubts on the details of her account.

An office clerk for KIPP during the late-1990s, Leslie Salazar Ibarra, said she didn’t see Feinberg have any one-on-one meetings with a student behind closed doors during the time at issue.

“I would have questioned him,” she said. It’s “not appropriate, especially in this day and age. An adult can’t be behind closed doors with a child in a school setting.”

She and another former KIPP employee, Irma Valdez, said there was a window in the office door that let administrators see inside.

Several said furnishings the student said were in the office at the time of the alleged abuse were not there.

For example, the student said Feinberg had gestured to a degree on the wall, saying he was a doctor, before explaining why he would be performing the physical on her. But witnesses said they did not recall a diploma being there. (A KIPP-initiated investigation said she had been able to accurately describe Feinberg’s office at the time.)

Feinberg also said he hung his diploma in his classroom that year.

The student described a third encounter with Feinberg during the hearing.

During a field trip to Washington, D.C. soon after the alleged Q-tip incident, the student testified that she was swimming in the hotel pool in a shirt and shorts. She said Feinberg pulled her aside and offered her dry clothes — a pair of his boxers and a KIPP T-shirt — to wear back to her room. He took her into a men’s bathroom and gave her the items to change into in a bathroom stall. The student didn’t check if Feinberg “was peeking at her while she changed,” the petition says.

The student’s mother testified she found the men’s clothing in her daughter’s luggage when she came back from the trip.

The former KIPP employees who testified on Feinberg’s behalf said it was unlikely the former student would have been left alone with Feinberg on a field trip and that it would have registered as unusual if a preteen returned to a shared hotel room carrying her wet clothes and wearing a men’s shirt reaching near the floor and boxers she had to hold up.

“That is not something that happens normally so … a red flag goes up to say, ‘Hey, something’s wrong with this picture. I need to investigate further,’” said Sam Lopez, a longtime KIPP employee who was principal of the Houston school after Feinberg.

After the incidents, the student friended Feinberg on Facebook and made small talk with him when he visited a restaurant she worked at years later.

“I wanted to see if he had the audacity to look at me in the eyes like nothing ever happened,” she explained. She later enrolled her own daughter at a KIPP school.

The “school should not be defined by the actions of this man,” she said. “I like that school … the way they are concerned about the students, they take their time teaching and if you don’t understand they’ll put you aside and tutor you,” she explained.

Additional allegations have been made about Feinberg, though they were not discussed at length at the February hearings.

Two adult alumni working at KIPP Houston around 2004 made claims Feinberg sexually harassed them, according to legal filings and public notices. One of those women received a financial settlement from KIPP; Feinberg had opposed the decision to settle, he said, because “I did not do anything wrong.” Investigators for KIPP also described a separate, but similar allegation of sexual harassment; the investigation said Feinberg had paid her thousands of dollars, but that the women did not bring legal action and declined interview requests from investigators.

He’s also been accused of repeatedly accessing pornography from his work computer, in violation of a KIPP technology usage policy, according to a filing by KIPP in his defamation lawsuit. “There’s no evidence that he ever looked at porn on a KIPP computer,” Tritico said.

Feinberg co-founded KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, in the 1990s. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and became a teacher through Teach for America. But he quickly grew frustrated with the “limitations in teaching at-risk students in Houston’s public schools,” a filing in his defamation lawsuit says. With another Teach for America instructor, Dave Levin, Feinberg came up with the idea for KIPP. The first school opened in Houston in 1995.

From there, the program has grown into a network of 242 schools serving more than 100,000 students.

The program uses a system of extended school days, tight-knit relationships between the school and students’ families, and a clear objective of preparing students for college. “Rides home, shared meals, and home visits are common at KIPP,” the defamation lawsuit filing says. The network has attracted an array of well-known donors and won accolades for the academic results it’s achieved teaching children in high-poverty neighborhoods.

“Mike and KIPP changed the game in terms of what people in public education thought was possible for low-income minority students,” said Chris Barbic, who was a Teach for America instructor in Houston with Feinberg and is now a partner with The City Fund. “I’d say it was pretty transformational.

Feinberg taught and was an administrator in Houston but later took on more of a proselytizing role, advancing KIPP and broader education issues.

KIPP opened two investigations into the original sexual abuse allegation. The first, opened in the spring of 2017, was led by a Houston-based law firm. The attorney who conducted that investigation testified Thursday, and said her report found the student’s allegation could not be confirmed. She also said the report found “the great weight of the circumstantial evidence [preponderates] against the veracity of the allegations.”

A second probe was opened later that year, this time conducted by the D.C. law firm WilmerHale. (A later court filing by KIPP indicated that was in response to a social media comment from Feinberg’s accuser on an unrelated new story about KIPP. KIPP also said that Spalding had not interviewed any of the alleged victim’s friends of family members.) This investigation resulted in his termination; he had been an at-will employee.

Feinberg seemed to connect his termination to a merger of KIPP schools in Texas that he’d asked “pointed questions” about, in conflict with the chair of KIPP’s board. A few months after he was fired, he said the merger went through.

KIPP could not be immediately reached for comment.