The Education Writers Association named four ProPublica projects as finalists for the National Awards for Education Reporting.
“Invisible Schools,” a collaboration with The Seattle Times, is a finalist in the collaborations category. The series explores the network of privately run schools on the fringes of Washington state’s special education system that advertise an array of expensive therapeutic services to public school districts to help students with severe disabilities. Reporters found that the largest chain of these private schools, Northwest School of Innovative Learning, has been the target of years of complaints from parents, school districts and their own staff, alleging abuse and overuse of seclusion and restraint of students, scant academics, understaffing and billing school districts for services that weren’t provided.
The series prompted a sweeping reform bill in the state Legislature and an investigation by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. OSPI noted that some allegations were “previously unknown” to the education office and other government agencies.
A series of stories from The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and NBC News examining a fiercely contentious campaign to remove LGBTQ-themed books from a local library in Granbury, Texas, is also a finalist in the collaborations category. Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News teamed up with Jeremy Schwartz of the ProPublica-Texas Tribune investigative unit to delve into book banning in Granbury, publishing one explosive piece after another about efforts to suppress books that more often than not involved LGBTQ content. Last year, the Granbury Independent School District pulled about 130 titles from library shelves for review, nearly three-quarters of which featured LGBTQ characters or themes.
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil rights complaint and, in December, the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into the school district’s actions. The probe is believed to be the first such investigation directly tied to the nationwide movement to purge schools of titles about gender and sexuality, setting up a key test of the federal government’s willingness and power to hold districts accountable for removing LGBTQ titles.
“White Parents Rallied to Chase a Black Educator Out of Town. Then, They Followed Her to the Next One” by ProPublica’s Nicole Carr, in collaboration with FRONTLINE, is a finalist in the features (large newsroom) category. Carr told the story of Cecilia Lewis, the longtime educator who had been forced out of her job at not one but two suburban Atlanta school districts — the result of local parents waging an “anti-woke” campaign.
Lewis did not see the need to relive her experience until Carr worked tirelessly to convince her. The story Carr hoped to tell was different from what other reporters had been seeking — in large part because it aimed to fully reveal the efforts to oust Lewis. Carr’s extensive reporting unearthed deeply calculating and outrageous behavior on the part of parents and one of the two school districts that had hired Lewis. It revealed connections to a broader movement unfolding in school districts across the country. And it showed a more sinister side of Lewis’ experience than even Lewis herself knew existed.
“The Price Kids Pay” by ProPublica reporter Jodi S. Cohen and Chicago Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith Richards is a finalist in the investigative and public service reporting (larger newsroom) category. The series was the broadest look ever at school-based ticketing in the country, documenting more than 12,000 tickets issued to students from 2019 to 2021.
The investigation prompted Illinois education officials to call for the end of school-based ticketing, the state attorney general to initiate a civil rights investigation into a suburban school district northwest of Chicago and school superintendents to rethink when police should be involved in student discipline. Subsequent parts of the series revealed how ticketing was often disproportionately applied to Black students and looked closely at the Garrison School, where employees call police on students every other day on average. Following the investigation, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation.
See the full list of EWA Awards finalists here.