Virginia Walden Ford’s energetic yet assured and level leadership has been central to the progress achieved by voucher advocates in the District of Columbia. Her group, DC Parents for School Choice, strives to bring choice and innovation to one of the most blighted school districts in the country.
What makes the District of Columbia such a powerful symbol in the struggle to expand parental choice is the irony of having such a district in the backyard of some of the most powerful people in the country. The plight of DC schoolchildren is what drives Walden Ford.
During the past several months, a pilot voucher program for the District has gained national attention, passing several key hurdles and gaining non-traditional support from such District leaders as Mayor Anthony Williams and Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Shortly after the program passed the House of Representatives by a single vote, Walden Ford spoke with Friedman Foundation Communications Director Laura Swartley.
Swartley: What have the past several months been like, working towards school choice in the District?
Ford: It has been exciting and very busy working with the parents, helping them learn about getting their voices heard by Congress, and seeing the empowerment of those parents who have not had the opportunity to voice their concerns before. It has been incredibly rewarding and emotionally difficult and physically challenging—but worth every moment that I’ve been able to serve the parents of the District in their effort to get the education they deserve for their children.
The parents have become more and more “fired up” as each battle has been won through committees. They were truly excited when the program passed the House, and they’ve become more confident and more willing to speak out and tell their stories.
There have been many shining moments. For example, hearing mothers who have never spoken publicly talk to Congressmen about how they feel about the education of their children; getting the support of Mayor Williams, Councilman Chavous, and Mrs. Cafritz; feeling the parents’ joy at each battle won in committees; and watching their faces when we won finally in the House.
My most distressing moment was being in the Gallery when the House voted. The mothers held hands and prayed. It was quite a moment at the end when we won, but it was truly stressful.
I think this program will be the beginning of an education system that will serve all children and not just those with money or the ability to move to neighborhoods that have the better schools. This will create happy and more involved parents and happy and better educated children, children who will have a bright future.
Swartley: What are you doing to prepare for the vote in the Senate, and afterwards?
Ford: We’ve been spending our days going out into the communities of the District. We’re talking to parents about what’s going on and encouraging them to go to the Hill and talk to Senators and tell how they feel and what this means to them. We’ve also continued the work we’ve always done—listening to the pleas of parents and helping them understand what is currently available to them and how they can take advantage of those opportunities.
After a successful Senate vote, the next obstacles are not losing focus as we continue to work diligently to improve all education for all children. We know that the opposition will work hard to undermine any steps we have taken. We have to continue to work hard in our advocacy and not take for granted that we are done. We must not stop fighting until every child is in an environment where they are receiving the best education possible.
My heart is in the District of Columbia with the families I love. I will continue to work on their behalf to make sure that they are informed of every aspect of the program and that the program serves them in the way it is designed. I am an advocate of the parents of Washington, DC and I plan on continuing to do so.
I don’t want to think the program won’t pass, but if it does not, I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that the education system currently serving our children improves and that the planned reforms are carried out in a timely fashion. I will not rest until that happens. I promised the parents I serve that I would be there with them until we have an educational environment that best meets the needs of their children.
Laura J. Swartley is former communications director for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana.