Behind The Scenes Of NPR’s School Money “Beast”

It’s been hard to miss NPR’s big new series, dubbed School Money, which launched on Monday and will continue over the next two weeks. A number of stories have already come out. The pieces have been shared widely on social media, and commented on at the NPR Ed Team ed page. The #schoolmoney hashtag has been everywhere, it seems. 

But what’s the story behind the massive project  — the NPR ed team’s second big endeavor — and how does it compare to last year’s Grad Rates stories?

A phone interview with one of the project coordinators, Cory Turner, tells us all sorts of interesting tidbits.

“With this project, we’re taking chances,” says Turner “– In scale, in subject matter, in delivery.” 

WEEK ONE

So far this week we’ve gotten a slew of broadcast and digital stories behind school funding variations. 

The series page, Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem, starts with an explainer that you can read or listen to (How much money a school can spend on its students still depends, in large part, on local property taxes).

Then there are a couple of standalone stories, including this one from Jennings Missouri where superintendent Tiffany Anderson is also the crossing guard (Why Did The Superintendent Cross The Road?), and another from Houston about the family behind one of the first school funding lawsuits (For 40 Years, One Texas Family Has Fought For Equal School Funding).

Listen to the first week overview below or read the transcript here.

BUILDING A NETWORK

So how did NPR pull all this off?

For nearly two years now, the NPR education team has been hosting a weekly conference call with education reporters at local public radio stations around the country.

According to Turner, developing this network was “baked into” the NPR ed team’s reason for being, and was the main source behind the project that we’re now enjoying (or not, as the case may be).

Between 10 and 20 stations call in each week, according to Turner. Through these conversations, “you get this really fascinating nationwide birds’ eye view of an idea.” Turner and colleague Acacia Squires coordinate things. 

Some of the conference call regulars hail from Chicago, Indiana, Boston, Oregon, Birmingham, Kansas and Mississippi. Many of these folks participated in last year’s Grad Rates project.

THE TURNER TOUCH

Another factor behind the effort might be called the Turner Touch.

Hired to join the education team a little more than two years ago, Turner is curious and articulate, great at explaining things on the air and on the phone. He pauses before responding to questions, then launches into answers that are so smooth they seem like they might have been written out ahead of time.

He’s a great observer of small details, as anyone who listened to his story about kids building bridges out of dried spaghetti will remember. He brought the Common Core testing story to life by taking a sample test and describing the experience.

He’s also remarkably generous with the credit he gives other reporters on the national team and at the local stations. “This is not the Cory Turner Show,” he says.

Who knows what he’s like to work with, but in interviews and on Twitter he’s a big and seemingly enthusiastic fan of his local public radio colleagues, namechecking them pretty much incessantly. It’s hard not to like.  

GRAPPLING WITH A TOUGH TOPIC

One of Turner’s main goals for the project was to make sure that the series didn’t focus just on big cities and major markets. 

But it’s not easy getting and keeping attention on an issue as technical as school funding. Terms like “equity” and “adequacy” make regular parents and even workaday teachers groan.

There’s so much variation among states and within them, too.  Money is “one of the biggest sources of inequity in education but it’s been right in front of our faces for so long we kind of accept that it’s just there,” notes Turner (sort of like school segregation was until recently, I’d add).

To help make the series as accessible as possible, the series focus isn’t exclusively on state and federal lawsuits that have taken place in nearly all states over the past 40 years.

According to Turner, the series can be boiled down to “how do we pay for our public schools, and why are some of our most vulnerable students attending some of the poorest schools?”

NEW STORYTELLING STRATEGIES

The School Money project varies greatly from last year’s Grad Rates series. There’s no app this year, which was used to deliver information last year, and much less artwork from LA Johnson, the NPR ed team illustrator whose work brought many of the grad rate stories to life.

But there’s a lot more broadcast radio for listeners to enjoy, and a big increase in member station participation (from 14 to 20). And, there’s a weekly broadcast synthesis piece done on one of NPR’s big shows, in which Turner highlights the issues and the individual stories.

Turner also hopes that there will be memorable characters, like Jennings (MO) superintendent Tiffany Anderson, to go along with the clear storytelling and necessary wonkery.

Veteran correspondent Claudio Sanchez was enlisted to go back to Kentucky, where he worked early in his career, to see whether the changes that came from the Rose lawsuit resulted in improvements for kids and schools, and whether they lasted.  (I love Sanchez’s more personal recent work, don’t you?)

A “BEAST” OF A STORY

Given the absence of digital bells and whistles, it was especially important to pick and shape stories that worked together but didn’t repeat or overlap too much, says Turner. There was a lot of time spent with local reporters working through what stories to tell from each station, and how to tell them in an appealing and engaging way.

“We put a lot of thought into asking ourselves ‘How do we make this story as accessible as possible?’” All of this has required an enormous effort, according to Turner. “It’s a lot more work, let me just say that. It’s a lot more work.”

“Honestly we had no idea it would be this large, or this complicated, or this intense,” says Tuner. “This was not our plan. We had no idea. It just kept getting bigger and bigger, and more complicated.” Eight or nine segments were initially in the mix, then more reporters wanted to get involved. “Suddenly we’ve got this beast on our hands.”

In the end, Turner and his colleagues did a lot of reshaping but took all comers. And why not? NPR’s ed team is uniquely positioned to tell a big story like this. “More than anyone else in the business, we have the resources. We have the full force of the network and of our member stations on our team, not at our disposal, on our team.”

Asked if the team ever considered declining a story idea from, say, Colorado, that wasn’t needed or was simply too much, Turner laughs and responds, “Nope, Colorado’s in it.”

WHAT’S NEXT

There’s not much argument that states and districts raise and spend education money differently. But next week the team will tackle the thorny issue of whether funding levels and equality actually seem to make a difference. For a long time, the argument has been that it hasn’t, but new research suggests that it might after all.

Future stories include a segment about Wyoming’s redistribution of funding at the state level. There will also be stories from Camden, Sumter County (AL), and Holmes County (MS) in week three.

We’ll get stories from high-spending low-income districts like Camden and some background on how Massachusetts raised spending over 20 years ago and whether it had any sustained effect. There will also be a story about how Goshen, Indiana made use of additional state dollars.

Turner’s overview pieces will be on All Things Considered in Week 2, and Weekend Edition Sunday for Week 3. He’ll be doing a few panels and presentations at next week’s EWA conference in Boston.

SO FAR SO GOOD?

I’m happy to see so much attention paid to an important education issue, and have long lamented the stalemated education funding situation that has long persisted.

One of my favorite pieces about the discombobulated 15,000-district local school governance and finance system we have in the US is Matt Miller’s memorable 2008 Atlantic magazine story First, Kill All The School Boards.

It’s too soon to tell whether School Money will be as big a success as last year’s Grad Rates, or how it will compare in its entirety to some of the big, deep education journalism projects that have been undertaken in recent months and years by other outlets.

Though it didn’t have the same broadcast presence as this year’s project has, last year’s Grad Rates project was manageable for me. It didn’t go for being comprehensive but deadening. It provided information that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. As I wrote at the time, Grad Rates “was big but didn’t feel overwhelming.” It was also very well organized, seemed balanced, and lacked any major errors or inaccuracies. 

There’s an awful lot of good stuff out there these days, though too much of it is dutiful and written for education insiders rather than broad and bold. Crossed fingers that, as Turner promises, School Money takes some storytelling risks and brings this critical issue to life in the public mind.

Related posts: NPR’s “Grad Rates” Shows Us How Well Education Journalism Can Be DoneThe Smallest Details Make All The DifferenceApproaching Year Three, NPR Education Contemplates Changes.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.