KIPP, one of the country’s largest and most successful charter school chains, dismissed its co-founder on Thursday after an investigation found credible a claim that he had sexually abused a student some two decades ago, according to a letter sent to the school community.
The co-founder, Michael Feinberg, was accused last spring of sexually abusing a minor female student in Houston in the late 1990s, according to someone with close knowledge of the case who was not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified. An outside investigation found her claim credible after interviewing the student and her mother, who both gave the same sequence of events.
Mr. Feinberg denies the accusation, his lawyer, Christopher L. Tritico, said.
Investigators also uncovered evidence that Mr. Feinberg had sexually harassed two KIPP employees. One case, in 2004, led to a financial settlement, the letter said; the other could not be corroborated because the woman involved would not cooperate, but the letter found it to be credible.
“We believe that Mr. Feinberg’s actions were incompatible with the leadership qualities that are central to our mission,” said the letter, which was sent Thursday afternoon to teachers, administrators and families of students.
Mr. Feinberg was told of his dismissal at a meeting on Thursday in Houston.
Mr. Tritico said an initial investigation last summer by outside counsel for KIPP’s Houston board had found the 1990s allegation to not be credible, before a second investigation by WilmerHale, a law firm specializing in sexual misconduct, reversed that finding.
He said Mr. Feinberg had never been told of the precise allegations against him, and had not been given a chance to defend himself. “The investigation was conducted without even the most rudimentary form of due process,” Mr. Tritico said.
KIPP said the first investigation found the claim inconclusive.
The program, started in Texas in 1994 with 47 fifth-grade students, achieved extraordinary results with poor and minority schoolchildren and became a model that many others sought to replicate around the country. Today it has nearly 90,000 students and 209 schools in 20 states. The vision of Mr. Feinberg and the other founder, David Levin, Ivy League graduates who came together through Teach for America in the early 1990s, is largely credited with its success.
In the early years, Mr. Feinberg was a teacher and administrator in Houston, but his current role had been mainly external — fund-raising, lobbying, political advocacy and college partnerships. In the year ended June 2016 — the latest period for which the organization’s tax filings were available — Mr. Feinberg received $231,885 in compensation and benefits while working for KIPP’s Houston schools, and $220,241 for work at the parent foundation in San Francisco, the filings show.
KIPP Houston Public Schools, as the local chapter is known, contacted Texas Child Protective Services, which declined to investigate because the victim was no longer a minor, according to the person with knowledge of the case. After an initial investigation, KIPP Houston and the KIPP Foundation hired WilmerHale.
Mr. Feinberg is the latest in a cascade of prominent men to be forced out of jobs over sexual misconduct allegations since October, when dozens of women stepped forward to accuse the film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse. The Weinstein allegations touched off a movement that has added impetus to investigations of sexual assault and raised the discussion about sexual harassment.
“It certainly is not a good time for anyone to be accused of something like this,” Mr. Tritico, Mr. Feinberg’s lawyer, said.
Mr. Levin said he had spoken to Mr. Feinberg about the matter, but he would not describe the conversation. “It is very hard to reconcile — I’ve known Mike for almost 30 years,” Mr. Levin said. “To reconcile what we’ve learned as a result of this investigation and the evidence that’s been presented to us with the work I’ve known him to do is very hard.”
KIPP has been praised as transformative by leaders across the ideological spectrum, including Arne Duncan, the secretary of education in the Obama administration; Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey; and Michael R. Bloomberg, the businessman-philanthropist and former New York mayor.
About 95 percent of the students who attend the organization’s schools are African-American or Latino, according to KIPP officials, who said the students in its schools consistently outperform their counterparts in regular public schools.
The students are referred to as “Kippsters,” and that sense of camaraderie and belonging is important to the school culture. KIPP’s working theory is that the performance of low-income students can be improved through extended school hours, strict performance targets and relationships cultivated between teachers and families.
Mr. Feinberg is married with two children, a son and a daughter. His father was a pipe salesman and his mother was a speech therapist turned psychotherapist. Mr. Feinberg was raised in a wealthy Chicago suburb and studied international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
He joined Teach for America and started teaching fifth grade in Houston in the early 1990s, and was stymied, he later told reporters, by the behavior and learning problems of his low-income Latino students. With Mr. Levin, a Yale history graduate, he received approval from the Houston school board to begin KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, in 1994. The program’s motto was “There Are No Shortcuts.”
The KIPP Foundation receives funds from many of the largest private donors in the United States. Its website lists support of more than $60 million each from the foundation established by Doris Fisher and her late husband Donald, who started the Gap apparel store chain; from the family foundation run by children and grandchildren of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart; and from the federal Department of Education.
Donors who have given KIPP between $25 million and $60 million over time include a foundation established by Julian Robertson, once one of the world’s top hedge fund managers, as well as the venture capital investor Arthur Rock and his wife, Toni Rembe. Donations of $10 million to $25 million have come, according to the website, from foundations established by, among others, the billionaires Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Eli Broad.
In the year ended June 2016, the KIPP Foundation reported $77.2 million in revenue, including contributions; $61.9 million in expenses, including salaries and grants; and $60 million in net assets.
The claim regarding Mr. Feinberg and the minor student, who is now in her 30s, had not been previously reported to KIPP or other authorities, and came by way of a more recent student who was a relative of the alleged victim, according to someone with close knowledge of the case.
KIPP officials said they were limiting the disclosure of details about the abuse claim because the KIPP community was so small at the time the abuse was said to have taken place that the woman involved could be identified.
KIPP officials declined to discuss the terms of the 2004 sexual harassment settlement by one female employee, who was a graduate of the school and was working in the KIPP office, saying the terms were confidential. A spokesman for KIPP, Jon Reinish, said the settlement was approved by a different board and the foundation was not involved.
Investigators said a second harassment claim from the same period could not be corroborated, though it was deemed credible. The woman involved in that claim, who was also a graduate, did not speak to investigators, but her story lined up with the previous one, the person with knowledge of the case said.
“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined,” the letter said. “At a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued.”
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