Gabrielson, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for a series that showed how routine police protection suffered as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio focused on combating illegal immigration, was accustomed to deep document dives for his investigations. But because the schools were private, the usual documents and statistics weren’t available. Instead, he and Reese had to rely on interviews. “It was a lot of talking to people, and it was a lot of pounding the pavement,” Reese says. Parents were willing to talk, Gabrielson says, because most felt justified in taking the tax credits and sincerely believed their children would fall through the cracks of public education without them.
Since the series was published in the first week of August, two state legislative task forces, one Democratic and one Republican, have launched inquiries into the tax credits with the intent of amending the bill to give it some teeth. The series has also blazed a trail for reporters in seven other states that offer private-school-tuition tax credits. “I talked to school tax organizations in other states while reporting the story,” Reese says, “and one comment made to me from someone at the Department of Education in Georgia was, ‘You ought to see what they’re doing here.’ I thought, ‘Wow, some Georgia newspaper is going to have a heyday with that one.’ ” Sure enough, a week after the Tribune’s series was published, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had its own story about parents exploiting a loophole in Georgia’s tax-credit law.
Gabrielson has since left the paper for a fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, but Reese remains at the Tribune, and her first investigative story has inspired her to pursue others. But that doesn’t mean she’ll forget about those routine daily stories, like the one that helped her uncover school-tax-credit abuse. “It was a very simple story,” she says, “that triggered a thought: ‘Here’s something that’s been around for twelve years. When is the last time anyone looked at it?’ ”