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Students at the Center for Inquiry at School 27.

Students at the Center for Inquiry at School 27.

Alan Petersime

Walton gives Indianapolis Public Schools $1.7 million to increase principal power

In a sign of the city’s growing prominence among national advocates for school choice, Indianapolis’ largest school district is getting nearly $1.7 million from a foundation that has long supported charter schools.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, gave Indianapolis Public Schools the three-year grant last month to help the district lay the groundwork for giving principals more control and responsibility.

The foundation is known for offering startup grants for charter schools, but in recent years it has increased focus on city-wide projects that improve the conditions for school choice, such as new enrollment systems. At the same time, it has given grants to school districts, such as Atlanta and Indianapolis, that are partnering with charter operators. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

“This grant, frankly, was not a hard one to make,” said Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director. “Increasingly, the foundation is looking for opportunities to collaborate with superintendents — states or cities chiefs — who have a shared vision for pushing hard on school success, who share a belief in educator autonomy.”

The latest grant from Walton is supposed to help Indianapolis roll out a strategy for giving principals at traditional schools more control over instruction, budgets, and staffing. Twelve schools have been designated “autonomous” schools and given some of that freedom by the district. Ultimately, the district’s goal is for leaders at all traditional schools to have more freedom by 2020.

Autonomous schools are still managed by the district and their educators are unionized, in contrast with innovation schools, which are managed by outside nonprofits or charter operators.

As the school board acknowledged during a retreat in January, the transition to a district where all school leaders have significant flexibility will be challenging for both principals, who will get more responsibility, and central office staff, who must cede control. The Walton grant will help pay for changes at the central office to meet the needs of autonomous schools as well as for training for school and district staff.

“This would allow us to invest resources in shifting our services to schools as they operate more autonomously,” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told the board in February.

The grant is the latest investment Walton has made in Indianapolis. In addition to giving millions of dollars to Indianapolis charter schools, the foundation has given to The Mind Trust, a local non-profit that supports charter schools. And it gave the district grants to support community engagement and communications plans for innovation and autonomous schools.

When it comes to partnering with charter schools and decentralizing school management, Indianapolis is at the forefront, and advocates across the country are pushing for districts to follow the city’s lead. But the country is not making a linear shift toward more freedom for principals. In New York, for example, city leaders have been shifting power back to the central administration in recent years.

Indianapolis is one of 13 cities Walton chose to focus on in recent years in part because the foundation anticipated the policy conditions and people in those places would align with their vision for improving schools, Sternberg said. Other cities the foundation targeted include Denver, Memphis and New York.

Education leaders in those cities are not all operating from the same playbook, Sternberg said, but they share core beliefs, including “the more decision making that resides in the school, the better.”