Ryan Gabrielson & Michelle Reese | Hillman Foundation

Ryan Gabrielson & Michelle Reese

The Hillman Foundation announced today that Ryan Gabrielson and Michelle Reese have won the August Sidney Award for their series in the East Valley Tribune about tuition credit abuse in Arizona. The six stories—more than 10,000 words in the Phoenix newspaper—were based on an examination of thousands of pages of state and federal tax records and private school enrollment data from the past 12 years. The reporters detailed multiple abuses associated with Arizona’s Private School Tuition Tax Credits program.

Ryan Gabrielson is spending this year as an investigative reporting fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Michelle Reese is an East Valley Tribune Staff Writer who covers education.

Among their major findings:

  • The tax credit law enacted in Arizona in 1997 was supposed to make private education more accessible to families who could not afford it; instead, it has fostered a rigged system that keeps private education a privilege for the already privileged.
  • To date, the program has cost Arizona’s main bank account $350 million, as the state grapples with the most serious financial crisis in its history, and those who depend on the general fund - public school children, the disabled, the poor and the sick - face severe cuts in services.
  • School Tuition Organizations (STOs), schools and parents are using the tax credits in ways that violate federal tax laws governing charitable donations.
  • In the last six years, nearly two-thirds of all STOs failed to spend 90 percent of their donations on scholarships, as required by state law.
  • Executives at two of the largest STOs have used tax credit donations to enrich themselves, buying luxury cars, real estate and funding their own outside for-profit businesses.
  • A majority of tax credit donations are earmarked to give scholarships to students already enrolled in private schools, no matter how much money their parents earn. Just seven of the state’s 55 STOs use financial need as the primary factor in deciding who gets tuition money.
  • Even as they took in millions of dollars in scholarships, the state’s private schools hiked tuition dramatically, pushing the cost of private education further from the grasp of middle- and low-income families.
  • Tax credits have failed to increase minority students’ access to Arizona’s private schools. Students at the schools receiving the most scholarship money remained overwhelmingly white at a time when the state’s Hispanic population boomed.

At a time when most newspapers are undergoing painful downsizing which sharply limits their capacity for investigative reporting, the Tribune’s effort represents an impressive commitment of reportorial resources and column inches.

Earlier this year, the East Valley Tribune won its first Pulitzer Prize for a series written by Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin about the abuses of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in his campaign against illegal aliens. Ironically, Paul Giblin was laid off last January in the paper’s own major downsizing, before that Pulitzer was announced.

Sidney Award Judge Charles Kaiser noted, “Although the newspaper has significantly shrunk its staff, it is heartening that the Tribune remains willing to devote so much time and so much space to such an important story. Ryan Gabrielson and Michelle Reese took a huge amount of data and boiled it down into exciting stories, which are also refreshingly easy to understand.”

Ryan Gabrielson
Michelle Reese