Should a Child’s Education Be Determined by Their Zip Code?

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg says public education officials must invest in more teachers while providing more accountability to parents and the community.
KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg says public education officials must invest in more teachers while providing more accountability to parents and the community.

When Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin established the first Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school in 1994, their goal was to motivate low-income Houston fifth graders to show up for class. They quickly realized the impact of factors outside the classroom on student achievement.

“It’s easy to point fingers and blame teachers, principals, the school system or society,” said Feinberg, speaking Monday at a special lecture presented by the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “However, pointing fingers does not provide a solution for students and parents. We didn’t look for the magic solution, but we rolled up our sleeves and got out there.”

Feinberg and Levin founded KIPP on the basis of “great teaching and more of it.” They wanted to create a culture of school leadership that ensured students, parents and teachers wanted to be there.

The charter school network has been successful in Houston and other cities. Of the students who attended the KIPP Houston middle schools, 90 percent have gone on to college and 51 percent have graduated. That’s compared with a national college graduation rate for low-income children of 8 percent.

Today, there are 200 KIPP public charter schools that serve 80,000 students in 20 states and Washington, D.C.

For Feinberg, the debate over charter schools and whether they take away resources from public schools doesn’t get at the real issue of educational equity. He believes all children deserve a quality education. School choice can help more students get there, he said, so that they’re not doomed by their zip code.

“Our job should be to make sure all doors of opportunity are open to every student,” said Feinberg, who holds an honorary doctorate from Duke. “Every child, of every zip code should have the freedom to achieve their dream in life.”

To close achievement gaps educators must move away from what he considers the outdated current system, Feinberg said. Schools should invest in more educators and shift the focus of their accountability to students and parents, rather than the government. 

“There is the concept of public education and then there is how we deliver public education,” he said. “We deliver it the same way and expect different results. If we want extraordinary results for our kids, we have to do extraordinary thinking.”

Despite the results KIPP schools have achieved, Feinberg acknowledges that work remains, particularly in addressing the impacts of childhood poverty.

“Funding issues, teaching issues, facilities issues and assessment issues are all problems, but those are not the starting point,” he said. “The starting point is what we believe about poverty statistics. In 2017, in the United States of America, the time and place of your birth impacts your chance to have the freedom to achieve your dream. We either believe that we reap what we sow or that poverty creates added challenges and stresses on schools.”