Developing a School Choice Program, from the Grassroots Up

Published March 1, 2006

Managing Editor’s note: In late October of last year, Virginia Walden Ford–executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, the organizing force behind the two-year-old and at-capacity school voucher program in the District of Columbia–spoke at a luncheon hosted by The Heartland Institute about the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act, passed by Congress in 2003. Her comments are excerpted below–the third in a several-part series.

We started this challenge, and we started working with Congress to develop a school choice bill. We started in the U.S. House of Representatives, and it became a real project and a real commitment from several congressmen. Most elected officials want to get involved with something that is going to be successful. But there was still something missing.

We had a strong group of people, like yourselves, and everybody had their role. And so a cake was being made–that’s kind of the way I’ve always put it, we had this great cake that was being made but it was missing the icing, the parents, the grassroots group. We can’t do this without all the cake together, with icing and everything.

It became very clear to us that we had to mount a strong grassroots attack. I told this group of wonderful people I was working with that I could do it. I didn’t have a clue what the heck to do, but I knew I would certainly try with all my heart.

We started going out into communities. Working with low-income families can be a little interesting, mainly because you go into communities where there are a lot of fears. I always figured I could go into any African-American community and be welcomed. I found out I was wrong.

Building Trust

They didn’t know me. They didn’t know anything about me. They didn’t know if they could trust me. They didn’t know what I was bringing to them; I could’ve brought a lot of lies, many of which they’d been involved with before. My first meeting, which had 100 people there, I was pretty much run off the stage and told, “You come back when you can tell us the truth, when we know who you are.”

It became real clear I had to build a relationship before I stood up in front of groups and promised to do something to change their children’s educational direction. These were families in the worst schools in D.C. These were schools that were just not serving their needs. Who was I to go into these communities, stand up in front of large crowds, and tell them we were going to do something different and that they had to be involved in it?

So we began what we called the period of developing relationships. Almost every day of the week, I was at some community meeting, just sitting there–not making a presentation, just talking to families, just getting known, telling my story. I actually had a story to tell. But I didn’t realize that I needed to tell it at the beginning.

I was a single mother raising kids in the district, wondering like every single parent in the district what was going to happen–especially to my boys, struggling to make sure they had everything they needed, oftentimes not. I had gotten a scholarship; I had seen my son turn around; I had a story.

So I began to tell my story and to make sure they knew I was a person that could be trusted. So going into the community, beginning to identify parents that could potentially be good people to be a part of your effort, is really important. I spent five days a week doing that.

Developing Grassroots

The most difficult part is activating the grassroots. It is a great sacrifice, and I was very lucky that I have a husband–I did get married at some point–who took care of my children while I was out trying to help take care of others’ children. I always say this started off as one mother’s plea to do something to save her own son, and it turned into an effort that involved thousands and thousands of parents in the District of Columbia.

So we began by doing that, and in the meantime, your counterparts in D.C. were doing the strong lobbying and getting on top of other information, making telephone calls to people they knew, because we all had to make sure this would come together and be connected. The grasstops, is what we called them, would do their work, and the grassroots would come up and take up the rest of the fight.

We began to get out there and start identifying parents. We actually trained 100 parent leaders. The Institute for Justice did the media training, and a lot of the other training, and we had this one group of parents who became our first line of defense. They each went into their communities to talk to other people.