School Reform Funding

Walton Grant will Ready Principals to Run 'Autonomous' Schools

A $1.7 million grant will help Indianapolis Public Schools as the school system shifts away from centralized support and its principals take on more autonomy. According to the final paperwork, the purpose of the grant is "to support the development of internal capacities, processes, and systems necessary for implementing full, building-level autonomy for every IPS school."

The funding comes from the Walton Family Foundation, which has invested $1.3 billion-plus in K-12 education since the early 1990s. That includes support for more than a quarter of the charter schools created in the United States.

More recently, the foundation has turned its attention to supporting cities that want to undertake "system-wide educational improvement." Besides Indianapolis, that list also includes New York; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Memphis; Houston; Oakland, CA; and Los Angeles, among others. States have also been the recipients of its largesse for developing new education policies.

Reporting by Chalkbeat stated that Walton's support for IPS will help the largest district in the city "roll out a strategy for giving principals at traditional schools more control over instruction, budgets, and staffing." So far, 12 schools have been named as "autonomous." In these schools, principals are given more freedom for allocating resources to address the specific needs of the students and families, as they see fit, in pursuit of better learning outcomes.

"Top-down management doesn't take into account that each school is different and serves different students," the district's website explained. "By empowering strong leaders at the school level to make informed decisions for their teachers and students, we will create a system where the central office supports school needs instead of dictating them."

By the 2020 school year, Chalkbeat noted, all of the schools in the district could have similar levels of autonomy.

The district already has "innovation schools," which maintain full decision-making authority over both academic and operational functions. Most are managed as charters or run by outside non-profits. The autonomous designation differs from that in that the controls will focus primarily on academic functions — how the day is structured, how staffing is chosen and what instructional methods are used.

Another difference is that teachers at the autonomous schools, unlike teachers at innovation schools, remain part of a district-wide bargaining unit; teachers at the autonomous schools may choose to create a school-wide bargaining group.

The Walton funding will cover the costs related to the change management aspects of the transformation and training for school leaders and staff.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.