All Sides: Telling the Story of Public Education
Aliyya Swaby is the public education reporter for The Texas Tribune. Since joining the Tribune in October 2016, she’s helped inform thousands of Texans about the state of Texas public education. A recent Texas transplant, Swaby has traveled all across the state to cover some of the most pressing topics in public education. In the time that she’s been with the Tribune, she’s reported on education policy debates in the 85th Texas Legislative Session, school finance and its effects on school districts, life in rural school districts, and the challenges many schools are facing in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Throughout it all, Swaby’s approach has been to provide a human face to her stories while informing the rest of us on the issues that affect millions of children, parents, and educators every day. ATPE sat down with Swaby to chat about her work and what goes into covering public education in a state like Texas.
ATPE: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Swaby: I started at The Texas Tribune in October 2016. Previously, I covered education locally in New Haven, Connecticut, for two years. Before then, I spent a year in Panama doing freelance reporting for a project. I went from covering the New Haven School District every day for a hyper-local newspaper—the New Haven Independent—to covering the entire state of Texas and its politics surrounding public education. That was a big move for me.
You’ve been with The Texas Tribune a little over a year now. What are some of the most memorable stories you’ve covered in that time?
I arrived here in October 2016 and then a few months later had to jump right into the legislative session for the first time. As a result, a lot of what I wrote about then revolved around school finance and private school tuition subsidies, which were two of the main issues that legislators revolved around this session.
I tried to do stories that highlighted the policy debates, but they were really meant for students, schools, and the people reading the articles who didn’t necessarily work as lobbyists or who don’t know the nitty-gritty of how these things work statewide. For me, that meant going to school districts and talking to students and parents.
One story that I did—which I did with Edgar Walters, an investigative reporter here—had us traveling to Texas City ISD. They were risking losing funding through ASATR (Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction), which was about to expire, and the legislature didn’t seem poised to extend it. We went [to Texas City] and talked to administrators and students and saw what it meant for them to be losing that funding. They had a really specific situation because they had merged, or annexed, another school district, so they were really depending on that money to get that district’s facilities up to standard because that district had not managed money how they should have.
That was a big eye-opener for me. It was one of the first stories that made me realize that I could make school finance interesting and palatable to people outside the education world.
Texas is a large state. As a result, you have so many different school districts serving different needs. How do you approach a beat that large and find stories that will resonate with such vastly different populations?
During the legislative session, it was easy because a topic would come up or there would be hearings with superintendents talking about the needs of their school districts. I found out about Texas City ISD when the then-superintendent went to a senate hearing and talked about their issues.
Then and now, that’s a lot of how I find people: Who is most vocal, is that story representative of enough school districts that it tells a story, and is it worth using as a sort of a case study?
I also end up using a lot of data. The Texas Education Agency has a ton of data on trends over time, and that helps me inform and drill down and see if there are specific school districts that are representative of trends we’re seeing in the data. We have an excellent data team here at the Tribune that is really helpful with that kind of digging.
Traveling is obviously a large part of your job. Not being from Texas, what is it like traveling across a state that’s so large and varied?
Traveling is my favorite part of the job. I know that my blind spot is covering rural areas because I’m from New York and grew up near the city. I just don’t have as much exposure to those areas. I try very hard to travel to rural school districts and speak with people who depend on industries like farming or natural gas and oil to make a living. Those are the places where I’ve learned the most because it’s in these areas that education is just so central to the community and to so many of the people. It’s a good place to see a very deep and genuine part of Texas.
[Traveling there] also helped me realize that there are a lot of rural legislators. A big part of the political divide in Texas that people outside of Texas might not get is the big rural and urban divide. Especially with so many of the country’s largest cities located here, I think people forget how many parts of Texas are rural and depend on agriculture. I’ve been digging in deep so that I can learn as much as I can. As someone who’s not from rural Texas, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to understand, but it’s interesting to talk to people from these different walks of life.
It seems like education was very present in this latest legislative session. How do you think the conversations that happened during the session have set the tone for this election year?
This is my first time covering the primaries, but I feel like there’s a lot to say about how education will play a role in them. Teachers are organizing. Educators are organizing. In ways that they might not have been before. The conversations around them, not just in terms of issues but of voting blocs, are very prevalent right now. I can’t exactly say whether it’s more present than before, but I do feel that the primaries will be a time where you see people who were angry about what conversations did or didn’t take place make themselves heard. I’m sure that will reflect in the conversations that are being had and in the rallies, protests, and debates around the primaries.
What is the Tribune’s approach to informing its readers, and how can educators use that to inform themselves?
A lot of teachers, depending on where they live, probably have good local resources and local reporting happening. The Tribune is more at the state level. We’re not going to have the nitty-gritty on what’s going on in each school board, but we’re putting in a lot of work to help people figure out who their candidates are.
We have the whole election machine, basically, that is starting up. We’ll have a series of articles on candidates at the state and the congressional levels. We also have explainers where people can submit questions that they’d like answered. So, if there are certain areas where people feel that there are gaps in our education coverage, then there are certainly opportunities to not just read the news and react, but to be a part of asking questions and let us know when we haven’t covered something fully or when we could be doing a better job.
Another big story in 2017 was Hurricane Harvey and the myriad effects it’s had on areas across Texas. You wrote a few articles about Harvey’s effect on education and schools. Can you give us an idea of where we are now?
Hurricane Harvey devastated a lot of school districts in a few major counties. I think a lot of the conversation now as they start to rebuild is about funding. These districts obviously have to rebuild, and they have to put money into that and into educating students who might be in their district now but weren’t before.
The question now is, will those investments be refunded in the next session? That’s a big question that I think a lot of educators don’t have the time to really think about right now because they’re busy getting things back to normal for students and staff, but that’s something to look toward.
I’m hoping to continue to cover Harvey’s effects as we move toward the next session, especially with a different legislature. Will they want to fund these school districts in the way that they’re asking for? And I think they’ll have a big conversation around accountability and testing. The education commissioner has said he’s not going to waive standardized tests, for the most part, for students affected by the storm. It’s still up in the air about whether they’ll be held to the same accountability standards as Texas moves into its new A-F accountability system. Those are the two major areas in which anything could really happen, especially with a new legislature coming up.
What sorts of stories are you drawn to telling or wanting to tell?
I’m drawn to stories where there’s a really nuanced policy question that is maybe unanswerable, but the stories that I tell can really illuminate either side. So that the person reading it, who maybe was on one side of the topic, can read it and understand how the other side can think what they do.
I wrote a story recently about a school district where they had $7 million in state cuts and they decided to give their athletic director and football coach a $21,000 raise. I ended up writing a story where I traveled to the school district and talked to a lot of people there. My story was about how school districts make decisions on how to change their budgets when they have to scale back and what the priorities are that they take into account. It wasn’t that I came into the story thinking that schools spend too much on athletics. It was really that I’m coming from a place where I honestly wanted to understand what goes into these decisions. How do you decide whether to spend money on this and not what you would think of as more directly academic or teaching salaries?
After the story, there was a lot of conversation that I saw happening on social media and people that reached out to me. Some people thought I was saying that football was unimportant and money shouldn’t be spent on it, and others thought that I, as a reporter, was saying that the state was cutting too much money from schools. But really, I was just presenting a complicated story. The fact that two sorts of people read it and got different things out of it shows that I was successful in presenting a complicated issue.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
If there are stories that I’m not telling as an education reporter, I hope people feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AliyyaSwaby. One of my favorite things is to travel and visit and dig deep into individual school districts. Tell those stories. If there are stories that I should be telling that I’m not, then I hope people will let me know.
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans—and engages with them—about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues. For more information, visit texastribune.org.