The Fight to Give Educational Choices to Poor DC Children

Guy Benson

1/24/2011 12:01:00 AM - Guy Benson

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.”

After two years at Carroll, William transferred to a local charter school and graduated as valedictorian. He attended college for a year before enlisting in the Marines. He graduated from boot camp two days after 9/11 and served a tour of duty in Iraq. Today, he works for a real estate company in greater Washington, DC. Having witnessed how profoundly her son’s future had been enhanced by the opportunity to attend a functional, nurturing school, Ford decided to make extending a similar lifeline to other underserved children her life’s work.

In the late 1990s, Virginia became an outspoken advocate for a bipartisan DC school vouchers bill. She testified before House and Senate committees about her experience with William, urging Congress to pass the law. Much to her delight, the bill prevailed. Her elation quickly turned to discouragement when President Clinton vetoed the bill on May 20, 1998. “That was the day after my birthday. I was devastated,” Ford recalled. Republicans resurrected the idea in 2002, leading to another Capitol Hill skirmish. The following year, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a bill establishing the DC Opportunities Scholarship Program, a five-year pilot initiative that provided annual $7,500 scholarships to DC students whose families lived far below the poverty level. (At the time, DC’s underperforming public school system spent roughly $13,000 per pupil, per year). In January of 2004, the legislation was signed into law by President Bush and implemented immediately. The program’s first class of students enrolled that September.

The scholarships were an instant hit. During the first five years of the K-12 program, an evaluation by the Department of Education revealed that participating students made statistically significant academic gains in each year of the program. “Sometimes [those gains] were small, but they were gains. People need to remember that our kids always start behind. They were coming from failing DC schools,” Ford said. In addition to the uptick in academic performance, parent satisfaction was “off the charts,” according to Ford. “Parents felt their kids were in much better environments. It made major differences in the lives of entire families. The number one key to that was safety. Kids finally felt safe.”

In 2009, the program was scheduled for reevaluation, and supporters believed its obvious success merited a speedy renewal. “Our understanding was that if we could show kids making gains, there would not be a problem getting the program reauthorized,” Ford explained, “But as soon as President Obama was inaugurated, issues started to crop up.” That February, Congress began deliberating over a $410 Billion omnibus spending bill. During the debate, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced an amendment reauthorizing the DC scholarship program. “We were asking for $14 million in funding to keep a successful program alive,” Ford said. The amendment failed, despite overwhelming GOP support and a handful of Democratic votes. The Democratic majority denied funding to a program whose total cost would have accounted for approximately .00003 percent of the bill’s total price tag.

The program suffered another blow when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rescinded scholarships from 216 students who had already been accepted into the program. “President Obama was just silent. Almost every single parent I dealt with on this issue voted and campaigned for Obama, so many of them were shocked,” Ford said. “It was purely political. Many Democrats hate this program. They always talk about the kids. This program helps kids, but they de-funded it anyway.” Ford said she believes the political calculus is simple: The National Education Association vehemently opposes school choice initiatives. The NEA also contributes heavily to Democrats’ campaign coffers, and elected Democrats return the favor with ‘no’ votes on school choice legislation.

By September 2009, public outrage over the program’s cancellation swelled to such a level that the administration was forced to relent—partially, at least. Secretary Duncan announced that the federal government would protect scholarship funds for students already enrolled in the program. Critics called the gesture empty and misleading because it failed to reinstate the scholarships of hundreds of students whose prized scholarships had been yanked away, and did nothing to preserve the program’s future. Even so, some parents of students who’d been grandfathered into the program were elated. Ford said they credited President Obama with temporarily saving the program and still remain convinced that he will again act at the eleventh hour to safeguard its future.

“In reality, there is no eleventh hour,” she warned. “In his 2011 budget, which still hasn’t passed, Obama cut the program by $3 million and stated that this lower expenditure would likely be the last federal contribution to the program. Without future federal contributions, there is no program,” she explained.

After a trying 2009, Ford said she found her spirit dyspeptic and her organization demoralized, but the 2010 midterm elections breathed new life into the movement. Just after Republicans won back the House, Speaker-in-waiting Rep. John Boehner invited Ford and a handful of activists and parents to the Capitol and pledged to restore full funding to the program. “[Boehner] has been one of our champions for many years. He has shown he really cares about this issue going back to the early days in 2003,” Ford said. If the House authorizes the funds, Ford said she believes enough Democratic Senators will join Republicans to send a funding measure to the president’s desk as a part of a larger spending measure.

“President Obama needs to run for re-election. There is no way he will veto this program,” she reasoned. “I guarantee you, if he vetoes this, he’ll lose a lot of African American support. “He wouldn’t dare to do it. I won’t even let myself think he’d do that to us.”

Although much hard work lies ahead, Ford said she remains grateful to the members of Congress who she credited with standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her advocacy group throughout its prolonged fight: “Whether it’s Boehner, or [Rep. Jeff] Flake (R-Ariz.), or [Former Senator Judd] Gregg (R-N.H.), or Senator Lieberman, or Senator DeMint (R-S.C.), or Senator Feinstein (D-Calif.), those are the folks who really stood up and fought on our behalf, big time. They’re still my heroes.”