EWA triples budget in last decade, survives COVID-19 pandemic, helps reporters navigate shrinking newsrooms, threats to education

EWA Turns 75

Organization twice on the brink triples budget in last decade, survives pandemic, helps members navigate shrinking newsrooms

Photo Caption: (From top left to right) First EWA president Ben Fine in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957; 1983 National Seminar in which “A Nation at Risk” is presented; EWA presents 1989 report, “Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door”; former EWA presidents Peter Janssen of the National Observer and Bette Orsini of the St. Petersburg Times at an EWA luncheon in 1950-60.

Photo Credit: Graphic edited by Kristan Obeng; photographers unknown

 

The Education Writers Association, established in 1947 to “raise the standards of school reporting,” according to its founders, witnessed unimaginable change in its early years.

Racial discrimination was a government-sanctioned reality when the group got its start. America was still living under the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. The landmark decision provided a legal justification for the unequal treatment of Black Americans in nearly all aspects of daily life: It wasn’t until 1954, through Brown v. Board of Education, that the court ruled racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

EWA was there through the transition, capturing the lead-up and fallout as the nation begrudgingly adjusted. Of course, EWA members noted, the Brown decision didn’t mean angry white mobs would suddenly step aside and welcome minority children, as evidenced by the treatment of the Little Rock Nine, a group of Black students who attempted to attend a previously all-white high school.

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called in the state National Guard to block their entry. Despite the threats against them, Black students persevered — and prevailed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, albeit reluctant to address discrimination head on, said the country must uphold the court’s ruling and sent federal troops to escort the students to school.

EWA’s first president, Benjamin Fine, writing of their struggle, helped preserve this moment in history, even advising one of the students not to let the mob see her cry. Threatened and degraded during the course of his work, he also recognized the danger reporters faced while covering the story: Ten were injured, he noted.

“Mobs don’t like reporters,” wrote Fine of The New York Times. “At least, the Little Rock mobs didn’t. They tried in every possible way to harass and interfere with the newsmen, photographers, radio, and television men who flocked to Little Rock as soon as the national guardsmen were called out to block a court-ordered integration plan. Why this hostility? The answer, given again and again, boiled down to this: ‘You reporters are stirring up trouble. If you left us alone, we’d solve our own problems.’ ”

EWA reporters have been stirring up trouble ever since, often with the organization’s help: EWA has given journalists close to $900,000 to fund ambitious projects on everything from Metro Louisville’s “disconnected youth” to the poor state of education in side Florida’s prisons, to the persistent achievement gap between Idaho’s white and Latino students.

These stories, said Caroline Hendrie, EWA’s executive director for a dozen years ending in summer 2022, have changed policies and changed minds.

They’re a reflection of an organization that has grown dramatically in size, scope and influence during her tenure. When she came to EWA in 2010, the functional expenses were about $1 million. In the two fiscal years before the pandemic, she said, the figure tripled.

But Hendrie won’t take all of the credit, instead acknowledging members’ own efforts to bolster the field.

“Collectively, you have enriched the working lives of colleagues across the country and helped one another contribute more meaningfully to our profession and the public good,” she said.

SEE PHOTOS:  A timeline of EWA’s history

1940s-1970s: As Education Progresses, EWA Fights to Survive

Founded by Fine alongside Millicent Taylor of The Christian Science Monitor, Jacob Jacowitz of the New York World-Telegram and a dozen other reporters, EWA worked to give greater prestige to education writers and also sought to encourage editors to give the topic more and prominent space in the nation’s newspapers.

“It is not enough to play up the spectacular in education,” EWA’s founding statement reads. “The day-by-day developments … are likewise important.”

So, too, were the laws that would shape education in the coming years.  Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, marking a major investment in education at the K-12 and college levels.

Designed to make America more competitive with Russia in science and technology after Sputnik, the legislation provided low-cost student loans to those who needed the funding to continue their schooling.

Seven years later, in 1965, the federal government passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the cornerstone of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The law steered money to schools that served impoverished communities in an effort to close the achievement gap in reading, writing and mathematics.

A decade after that, Congress passed a law requiring states that receive federal funds to enact programs to serve children with disabilities rather than turn them away or relegate them to inferior programs.

While the nation’s schools made progress in serving the overlooked during this era, EWA floundered. Eighteen journalists donated $5 each in 1964 to send reporters Ronald Moskowitz and Fred Hechinger to the Carnegie Corporation of New York to raise funds to finance two seminars and keep the organization afloat.

The men succeeded, and the organization had many gains in the ensuing decade: The American College Testing Program in 1972 boosted its awards with a $1,000 grand prize. Two years later, thanks to a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, EWA was able to hold a series of regional seminars, bringing knowledge and resources to reporters who it might not have otherwise reached.

Despite their efforts, the organization wasn’t stable. EWA had to be saved again in 1975. But it did survive: Seven years later, it published “Covering the Education Beat,” a Bible for education reporters.

As time went on, and the organization’s coffers grew slightly more robust, it continued to give new and seasoned writers the tools they needed to cover what was to come.

1980s: Seminal Education Reports and Data-Backed Journalism Emerges

In 1983, the country was rocked by “A Nation at Risk,” a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education leaked at EWA’s National Seminar that year. The authors warned the American education system was so flawed that its shortcomings, if uncorrected, would have major economic repercussions.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” it read.

President Ronald Reagan, NPR reported, joined its authors in a series of public hearings held around the nation. The document would shape American education policy for decades, with EWA reporters noting every critical development.

Anne C. Lewis, EWA’s president from 1983 to 1984, recalls how it was around this time that education reporting began to change based on the proliferation of massive amounts of data that simply wasn’t available before.

Lewis, who crafted a seminal EWA report called “Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door: An Investigation of the Condition of Public School Buildings,” in 1989, used data to highlight infrastructure problems at districts across the country, particularly those in impoverished and rural areas.

Prior to that, she said, journalists had to rely on anecdotal information or local observation.

EWA didn’t want the moment to pass unnoticed: When the federal government put out national data on school construction, the organization pounced.

“It was a wonderful, collaborative thing to do,” she said.

1990s-2010s: The Growth of EWA

Lisa Walker started working for EWA in 1986. Back then, she said, the organization didn’t have enough money to pay her full-time: It had a roughly $80,000 budget, most of which was committed to required expenses including bills from its annual meeting.

“The organization was pretty tiny,” said Walker, EWA’s former executive director. “All of their records were on paper.”

Walker, who had previous fundraising experience, a tremendous asset for the organization, started calling around, making sure everyone was up to date on their dues: By the time she left EWA in 2010, it had a nearly $1 million budget and a staff of five.

And the organization grew in other ways, too, targeting not only local and regional reporters but national journalists, including those from TV and radio. Walker was glad when a funder gave the group enough cash to visit newsrooms across the country to share resources with reporters.

And the field itself became far more sophisticated, prompting the organization to partner with other groups, including Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

The 1990s, Anne Lewis said, brought EWA even more opportunity — and financial support. The organization started writing regular reports, including a bi-monthly publication on middle schools and others on covering the education beat and school funding.

In 1991, the same year Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law, EWA sponsored its first trip to Europe for members to study school-to-work practices overseas.

Two years later, the organization established a national fellowship program that provided reporters two months of funding and editing help to complete long-term projects.

In keeping with the times, EWA launched its website in 1995, filling it with helpful guides meant to improve the craft and allowing journalists to share tips and ideas through listservs.

Bill Graves, EWA board president from 1997 to 1998, wrote the original Standards for Education Reporters, which included ethical guidelines for interviewing students, a cherished go-to for newcomers and veterans.

“As an education reporter, you spend a lot of time in schools talking to kids,” said Graves, who spent much of his reporting life at The Oregonian. “You can’t assume they have given you consent to report whatever they say to you. Kids will tell you things they don’t realize could hurt them when it’s read in a paper or online. I’ve had kids tell me stuff that I can’t print: It was too private.”

While other matters might momentarily rise to the top of the country’s collective concern, education has long been one of its most pressing interests: President Bill Clinton, in giving the keynote address at EWA’s National Seminar in Atlanta on April 14, 2000, acknowledged the magnitude of the topic.

“I can think of no other issue that has sustained to such an intense level of commitment from the public, elected officials, business leaders, and the press,” he said. “If anything, the determination of the American people to improve our schools is greater than ever.”

Even so, America still had not devised a plan to make achievement universal, he said. A year later, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which relied heavily upon data to analyze the success of all student groups.

No longer could the achievement rates of Black, economically disadvantaged, or special needs children be hidden inside an overall score.

While the nation grappled with a new — and sometimes confusing — set of standards, EWA hit 1,000 members in 2004.

Two years later, nine months after Hurricane Katrina, the organization held its annual conference in New Orleans, giving reporters a chance to visit schools ravaged by the storm.

In June 2010, long-time education reporter Caroline Hendrie came on as executive director of the organization. Hendrie, who stepped down from the role in July, brought swift change to EWA.

Gone were the membership dues that kept some reporters away and in came a new era of reflection on the state of the beat itself. With diversity, equity and inclusion a major concern, EWA made efforts to employ a more diverse staff and to reach a more representative group of writers.

2010s-2021: EWA Expands Programming and Overcomes Pandemic Challenges

An EWA board member credits Hendrie for pushing toward equity and for greatly diversifying the group’s offerings: Greg Toppo, the organization’s board president from 2017 to 2021, said she helped EWA stay relevant.

“Caroline figured out a way to make [EWA] much more vital and more important to people’s work-a-day lives,” Toppo said. “She just made the thing much more interesting. The past couple of live seminars blew me away.”

Hendrie brought the organization into the digital age. She and her team introduced several new programs including the EWA Reporting Fellowships, EWA Webinars, the Diving Into Data program, New to the Beat, an orientation program, EWA Radio, EWA Online Reporting Communities, the State of the Education Beat reports and the EWA Advisory Boards.

She and EWA staff also made already existing offerings, including the National Education Seminar, the annual Higher Education Seminar, EWA.org, the Public Editor Service, and the National Awards for Education Reporting, more robust and relevant.

Hendrie said the organization, under her leadership, worked to bring together EWA’s strategy and vision, identify its core values of professionalism, community, equality and diversity and strengthen the community of education writers.

“Having a greater diversity of programs helped us pivot during the pandemic to still meet members’ needs, even in a remote environment,” she said. “If we didn’t have this suite of offerings, including the website and resources, we would have been backfooted. Instead, we were able to redirect funds from traveling and conferences to projects that strengthened our community and added value to our shared professional lives in a virtual environment.”

2021 to Present: Decades After Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine

Its January 2021 State of the Education Beat report captured journalists’ concerns about the lack of newsroom diversity and the danger they faced during the course of their work.

“With education at the center of the news, journalists who cover the topic face a host of challenges, including harassment, threats, and obstacles to gaining access to education institutions, officials and public information,” it read. “Plus, a racial mismatch between the largely white education journalism workforce and the students they cover is a critical concern of reporters and editors on the beat.”

A survey of more than 400 education writers found 82% identified as white, compared with about half of the nation’s K-12 and undergraduate student populations, the report found. Writers have long called for change.

“Increasing diversity in newsrooms is key to accurately understanding and telling the stories in our communities,” said Eva-Marie Ayala, a veteran education reporter at The Dallas Morning News. “Of course, reporters strive to do so even when they are not of the city/community/background of those they are covering.”

But, said Ayala, vice president for journalists on EWA’s board of directors, having that diversity of perspectives and experiences in newsrooms help cover communities and issues from an authentic place.

“It must be a priority for outlets — and journalism organizations — to be aggressive in improving both the diversity of their newsroom and the diversity of their coverage,” she said.

Today: Threats to the Education Beat

Newsrooms have been steadily shrinking during the past decades, the education beat increasingly endangered.

Yet Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews sees hope: He believes there is still an opportunity for journalists to do quality work in the field, especially considering the rise of new nonprofits and education-focused news sites.

“Whomever we work for, many of us are finding ways to expose problems and celebrate successes as we always have,” he said.

And, he said, the current political climate has forced many political reporters to cover the beat for the first time, especially as it relates to critical race theory and book bans.

“Journalism will continue to evolve and maybe create more space and more jobs for our labors,” he said, adding that reporters’ audience has, in some ways, greatly expanded. “In the internet era, our efforts reach many more readers than I ever did when I was a cub reporter in 1971 covering Arlington County, Virginia, schools. Whatever we wrote did not go nearly as far or as wide as it does now.”

No matter where news is gathered, from plucky online startups to the Gray Lady herself, EWA strives to elevate the work of all its 2,150 members, supplying them with the resources they need to capture the state of education in America and remind the nation, day after day, of its commitment to do better.

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