illustration by Morgan Schweitzer
The room was jammed and hot. More than 100 school superintendents packed the Senate chamber at the state Capitol in early March, literally rising in opposition to a Republican-backed bill that would unravel new education standards in Wisconsin. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel education reporter Erin Richards tweeted from the bizarre scene: “Never seen so many WI supts together, outside ed convntn. All support staying course on #CommonCore, oppose #SB619.”
The day before, Richards had written an article headlined “Common Core 101,” separating fact from fiction about the national standards, designed to add consistency and rigor. Her readers definitely needed the cheat sheet: Earlier this year, a Marquette University poll found that more than a third of voters knew nothing about Common Core standards, even though every public classroom in Wisconsin will feel their impact. Less than 10 years ago, the Journal Sentinel had six journalists covering Milwaukee Public Schools and suburban districts. Today, Richards is the only reporter covering education full-time in Milwaukee.
Education policy touches families and reaches deep into the economy, but as traditional media models evaporate, newsrooms are struggling to chronicle important developments.
“I get pitched on a lot of items that are small but really important to a single school community, and we’re really not covering those stories any more,” says Richards, who arrived at the newspaper as an intern in 2006.
These days, education stories must illuminate broad trends to make it into the paper. The newspaper recently freed up Richards to write a devastating profile of Roosevelt Middle School, once a bright example of excellence in MPS. Because of violence and staff turnover, “Few who attended Roosevelt in its prime would recognize the place it has become,” Richards wrote. The piece required time-consuming records requests and hard-to-get interviews with former staffers. It’s the kind of provocative reporting few news outlets have the resources to produce.
Special-interest groups are trying to fill the information void. The nonpartisan Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance, a public schools advocate, offers reporter info sessions and meets with newspaper editorial boards. The group hopes to help school districts counter partisan blather from extremists on both the right and left.
“Lots of emotion and ideology are wrapped up with education now, and it’s difficult for the reader or the listener to separate fact from rhetoric,” says the alliance’s executive director, Terri Phillips.
Former Journal Sentinel education reporter Alan Borsuk laments the cutbacks at newspapers and skimpy coverage at other Milwaukee media outlets.
“To get TV news to a school, it has to be a hot-button thing like birth control pills in high schools or something cute like little kids writing soldiers in Afghanistan,” Borsuk says. “You can go to Milwaukee School Board meetings for a really long time and not see any reporters.”
“I have advocated for more resources,” Richards says. “But the police beat could use another person, and features would love to be able to fund a full-time dance critic again. … It’s not like we’re ever going to go back to what the good old days were.”