Race and Education Pieces Take Several Education Writers Association Awards

By Mark Walsh — June 01, 2017 4 min read
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[UPDATED Thursday, 2:25 p.m. with additional award winners.]

Three series examining issues of race and segregation in K-12 schools were among the winners Wednesday night in the Education Writers Association national awards.

Meanwhile, the organization’s top award, the Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Reporting, went to Brian M. Rosenthal for his series for the Houston Chronicle exposing how state bureaucrats devised a system to limit the number of children with disabilities who could be enrolled in special education. (More on that below).

Hundreds of education reporters, editors, and education experts gathered at Georgetown University in Washington for EWA’s national conference, with one noteworthy exception: As announced earlier in May, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declined to appear, with her staff citing a scheduling conflict.

Every U.S. secretary of education before DeVos has addressed the group, including at least the last four who appeared during their first year in office. The news that DeVos had declined the invitation drew widespread attention when EWA announced it.

Caroline W. Hendrie, the president of EWA, told the luncheon session of the conference that she hoped DeVos would address the group in the future. Greg Toppo, an education reporter for USA Today and the new EWA president, tweeted that “Instead of addressing #EWA17 today, @BetsyDeVosED meeting w/CEO of Natl Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.”

In addition to that meeting, DeVos had a phone call with Mexico’s education secretary on her public schedule for Wednesday, meetings with two heads of education nonprofits at the Department of Education’s headquarters on her Thursday schedule, and no public events on Friday, when the EWA conference ends.

The winners of the national reporting awards showed that race remains a major topic for education journalism.

A collaboration between the online magazine Slate and the Teacher Project called “Race in America’s Classrooms” won the single-topic news award for medium-sized general news outlets.The series, tied to the arrival of the majority “minority” milestone in American public schools, evaluates how communities across the country are adjusting to increasingly diverse classroom demographics in their public school systems. One story carried the headline: “Suburban Districts are Getting Browner: Will the White Families Stay?

In the feature writing category for magazines and weeklies, The Hechinger Report won for “Segregation and Integration in the Delta,” a three-part examination of school segregation and desegregation in several Mississippi communities.

In the investigative reporting category for broadcast outlets, WBEZ public radio in Chicago won for “Building Segregation in Chicago,” a look at the ways that city’s school system remains segregated by policy decisions in such areas as new school construction and school mergers. The series edged out NPR’s major “School Money” series examining educational equity.

Not all the prize winners were about race. In the investigative reporting category for magazines and weeklies, Benjamin Herold and Arianna Prothero won for their “Rewarding Failure” series, an investigation of the cyber charter industry.

In the opinion writing category, education columnist and blogger Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the winner. In brief remarks to EWA, she mentioned several simple stories she had done that registered with readers (and racked up coveted page views). One was a story about how many students hate collaborating in group classroom projects. Another was about students whose names are misspelled in their high school yearbooks for all eternity.

In the data journalism category, Steve Reilly, John Kell, and Nick Penzenstadler of USA Today won for their series about how broken state systems for tracking teacher discipline sometimes allowed offending teachers back into the classroom.

“It is, sadly, a story we weren’t the first to tell, and probably won’t be the last,” Reilly said in accepting the award.

On Thursday, EWA announced the Hechinger Award winner, named for the longtime education correspondent of The New York Times, from among the category winners, as well as two other awards.

Erin Einhorn of Chalkbeat, who on Wednesday had won the small staff beat reporting award for her coverage of the Detroit public schools, also won the Ronald Moskowitz Award for Beat Reporting. Meanwhile, Kelly Field of the Chronicle of Higher Education won the Edwin Gould Foundation Eddie Award for the first installment of her series, “Education’s Broken Promise to Native Students.”

Rosenthal, the Hechinger Prize winner for his Houston Chronicle special education series, recently joined The New York Times as an investigative reporter.

“Over a decade ago, [Texas] officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services—8.5 percent—and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids,” Rosenthal wrote in his lead article.

The series, “Denied: How Texas Keeps Tens of Thousands of Children Out of Special Education,” brought about state and federal inquiries and the state has since reversed course on the policy.

Accepting the award at a luncheon, Rosenthal noted that he was not even a regular education beat reporter but an investigative reporter “who happened to write about education last year.”

Education reporting “is desparately needed now” amid all the public attention to President Donald Trump and discord in national politics, Rosenthal said.

The full list of finalists in all categories is here and the list of category winners is here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.