Future of Schools

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

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students at the Center for Inquiry at School 27.

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.”

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”