Establishing School Choice in Washington, D.C.

Published February 1, 2006

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 that was passed by Congress in 2003. Her comments are excerpted below–the second in a several-part series.

In l998, there was some legislation that we worked hard to get through Congress–then President Clinton vetoed it. So we had disappointments in this long period of time when there was nothing but the dream of a small group of parents. We were convinced somebody would come along who would help us change the lives of many black children in D.C.

In 2003, with a choice-friendly administration, we knew this was our time to get out there and start doing something. We knew we had a president who wouldn’t veto legislation for us. And we knew that the message from the parents and kids in D.C. was that there was a lot that still needed to be done. So we started going around and talking with people about the possibility of starting something in D.C.

That’s where I think you all are. And that’s why I want to give you kind of a little rundown about what we did and how we got to the point where we were successful.

Commitment, Excitement, Energy

We started off meeting with people in D.C., such as yourself, who had an interest in making a difference in how kids are educated in this country. Lots of meetings were held in the communities, trying to identify folks who could play a key role in working with Congress and developing legislation. And I’m gonna tell you, we got together the best group of folks. These were people who were committed and excited and energetic and were just really going into this gung-ho.

I was part of that group, representing the parent component. With all the energy coming from the people that were coming to the table, they were getting me excited. They were saying we can do something to make a difference, to make something happen in the District. I don’t know how much you know about D.C., but D.C. is a tough town–we’re really governed by the federal government.

We certainly wanted our local elected officials to be involved, but our challenge was to talk to people who didn’t live in D.C. They had no vested interest in what happened to our kids; we weren’t their constituents. They were going back to Kentucky or wherever, and they were going to take care of their families, so we had to convince them that the children of D.C. were important enough for them to put some time and energy into making something happen. We knew we had a mighty challenge ahead of us.

And I think I was a little naïve–too naïve to be afraid of it. If I’d known what we were up against, I might not have been as gung-ho to get involved in it … and then again, maybe I would have been, maybe more gung-ho.