Developing a School Choice Program, from the Grassroots Up

Published May 1, 2006

Editor’s note: In October 2005, Virginia Walden Ford–executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice–spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Illinois School Choice Initiative, a project of The Heartland Institute, about the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act passed by Congress in 2003. Her comments are excerpted below: the fifth in a several-part series.

Our campaign [included] people from everywhere–all economic brackets, all races. People just cared about what happened to children. That’s what we focused on. We didn’t try to blast the public school system; we didn’t try to fight the union. We focused on what we wanted for our kids.

“If parents have a choice, children have a chance.” That was our motto. When the media interviewed us, that’s what we told them. And when they wanted to hear the dirt, we didn’t have any.

We believe when something happens in the District, it trickles down to the rest of the country. And we felt a big responsibility to make sure this worked. Because if it worked in D.C., maybe other people would look at it and say, “We need to try something different with our kids,” and it will work in other places. That was an added responsibility for our group, and we took that very, very seriously.

Constant Presence

We spent from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day on Capitol Hill for 10 months. Sometimes it would be 10 of us, sometimes it would be 20, sometimes it would be 50 of us, depending on what was going on. We participated in every hearing connected with the legislation. We went to every press conference that anybody called. We were there for their hearings, in our T-shirts. We literally wore T-shirts and jeans every day for a year.

We talked to the press and told our stories to anyone who’d listen. We walked around the halls of Capitol Hill and talked with staff people, congressmen when we could, and we made friends with security. We were everywhere.

And we were with our children when they could be there; we did not take our children out of school. In summer and on holidays, children were with us, so our children are very politically savvy. They know how to work the Hill–even our little two- and three-year-olds.

That’s what made the difference. Congress started looking at us as the face of this legislation, not just a piece of paper. It started being something for these children and these families. I’m convinced the turning point of our legislation was the parents. We walked into congressional offices and made a difference.