Virginia Walden Ford’s modest two-story home in northeast Washington, DC seems nondescript from the curb. Step through her front door, however, and you’ve entered the nerve center of DC Parents for School Choice, a grassroots organization whose current mission is to restore full federal funding to a popular and successful school vouchers program terminated by Democrats in 2009. “This is my passion, and I want it to be my legacy. We’ve fought really hard for the parents of DC,” Ford said, speaking of her deeply personal battle over education that has spanned three presidential administrations.
Although school choice advocates are sometimes cast as enemies of public education by opponents, the label does not apply to Ford. The daughter of two Arkansas public school teachers, Ford attended Little Rock Central High School in the years immediately following integration. “I am not an anti-public school crusader. I’m a quality education supporter,” she explained. “Right now, the way things are in many public schools, we’re not providing a good option for kids. We have a responsibility to provide options for parents if their kids aren’t getting what they need in public schools.”
Ford experienced the shortcomings of DC’s public school system firsthand when her youngest son, William, began to struggle with academics as an adolescent. Neglected by teachers contending with overcrowded classrooms, William started acting out in school, skipping class, and consorting with drug dealers. Walden-Ford was distraught. “Once William started having trouble with the law, I became desperate,” she said. “I feared he would end up like a lot of kids. We had serious drug dealers right up the street, and they were courting the kids, including William. They were buying him expensive shoes and giving him money. Without an education, I was terrified that drugs and violence would become his life.”
As William’s behavior spiraled and Ford’s despair deepened, a generous neighbor’s intervention brought about a watershed moment: He offered to help pay for William to attend a local parochial school, forever altering the trajectory of his life. “I never could have afforded [Archbishop John Carroll High School] on my own. I was a struggling single mother at that point,” Ford said. “So [neighbor] Bob Lewis’ offer changed everything. I had this sullen, angry kid who turned into someone totally different. We used to fight every morning about going to school. Once he was at Carroll, he’d get up on his own, put on his uniform, and began to really enjoy the learning process. This change didn’t take years. It took months, and it was dramatic.”