How did Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, follow up her successful legislative efforts? By writing a book to help other parents fight for school choice.
Ford, a mother of three, didn’t know a lot about school choice options before 1996, but “became more disturbed each year” by the public school system and its “lowered expectations” for academic achievement.
“I was a single mom, poor, just trying to make a living,” she said. “I lived the life that the families I serve live.”
Starting at Home
By the time Ford’s youngest son, William, entered his freshman year of high school in 1996, he was performing poorly and in trouble–in class and out.
“I’d always seen the potential in my son, but it seemed no one else did,” Ford said. “A neighbor saw that potential and offered to help us, and it was a blessing.”
The neighbor paid for William to attend a parochial school; the change in him, Ford said, “was dramatic”–something that was accomplished in weeks, not months.
“The chance to go to a private school turned his life around,” she explained. “Before, he was struggling to fit in, like a lot of urban kids without fathers do. It isn’t necessarily to their benefit to act smart. You have to change their environment. For the first time, my son felt people cared if he learned, and he felt safe.”
William’s story has a happy ending: He graduated from high school in 2000 and is currently serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. He returned from Iraq in late March and is now back at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in San Diego, California. Ford believes that without their neighbor’s help, things might not have turned out so well.
Not long after William transferred to the parochial school, Ford decided she “had a responsibility to help other parents.” A longtime community activist with an interest in education, she had been tutoring high school students in math and elementary school students in reading since the mid-1990s. In addition, she said, “I have a gift for talking to others, and I believe that if you see something happening, you have a responsibility to do something about it.”
She started by volunteering at the Center for Education Reform in 1997, then founded D.C. Parents for School Choice a year later. She calls 2003 an “incredible year” because her organization’s legislative efforts were recognized when Congress passed the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act.
The nation’s first federally funded scholarship program, it earmarked $14 million in grants for low-income children to attend private schools in the District. The first of several analyses to be conducted by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute was released April 5, 2005 … and the authors found students in the D.C. program are on track to achieve the same positive results as those enrolled in voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and New York City, according to a Heritage Foundation report.
That led to Ford’s newest project–her self-published memoirs, titled Voices, Choices, and Second Chances: How to Win the Battle to Bring Opportunity Scholarships to Your State.
Ford’s friends encouraged her to write her story after the campaign. Though she says she’s not a writer and “it was hard,” she’s glad she did it.
“I’m really pleased with it, but I did it kicking and screaming,” she said with a laugh.
Her inspiration came from the parents involved in the D.C. campaign. “Their story needs to be told,” she said. “The press never mentioned them. History needs to know they were involved. This book is a testament to their empowerment.
“I think people will read it, and it will give them confidence to get out and fight.”
Excitement about Future
With a successful campaign and a new book behind her, Ford is “excited about the future.” She is optimistic that school choice efforts continue to head in the right direction.
“Most people look to lead a life of value,” Ford said, and her continuing advocacy gives students the chance to do just that.
“I want to help parents see that every child can be directed to a place that will work for them,” she said, pointing out that it takes research to find the best fit, “but that’s why we support alternatives.” Though she realizes most of the nation’s schoolchildren will continue to be educated in public schools, she doesn’t mind as long as they’re getting the education they need.
“Low-income parents need to make their voices heard,” she said. “If you are going through challenges, sometimes you don’t raise your voice, but you have to. You can’t just say to the school system, ‘Educate them.’ You have to get involved.”
Sarah Faulkner ([email protected]) is an adjunct fellow with the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation.
For more information …
The April 6, 2005 Heritage Foundation report, “A Promising Start for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” by Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., is available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/wm710.cfm.
For a copy of Virginia Walden Ford’s book, Voices, Choices, and Second Chances, download the order form from http://www.heartland.org/publicPDF/voiceschoices.pdf.