Virginia Walden Ford
Virginia Walden Ford

It was autumn 2004, and Virginia Walden Ford and her colleagues had prepared for another busy day. She and her group of ambitious volunteers had gathered up their supplies, jumped into their cars and headed for a poor and violent part of Washington, D.C. The danger had not deterred them. Washington was their city, and they were on a mission to empower parents and help children succeed.

Upon arriving at a community center, they had begun setting up for a day of assisting parents with the application process for a school voucher program that provided federal government scholarships to Washington primary and secondary school students. The room had soon bustled with activity. One woman explained the required paperwork to a mother seeking a voucher; at another table, parents were guided through a detailed application.

All was fine until one of the volunteers pointed out a man who was behaving strangely. Virginia knew instantly the man had had too much to drink. Hoping to avoid a scene, she decided to escort him quietly and gently outside.

Donning thick skin, Virginia approached the disheveled and foul-smelling man and gestured toward the exit. "What are ya’ doin’?" he blurted out. "I’m here to fill out an application for my son!" He paused and then finished his thought.

"I don’t want him to end up like me."

Virginia melted into a smile. She motioned him to a table, and they began the application process. His name was Joe, and like so many other parents, he would learn that beneath Virginia’s thick skin was a heart of gold. Joe and Virginia worked together until the paperwork was done and Joe’s son was qualified for a government-paid scholarship voucher — a scholarship that he ultimately received — to attend second grade at the private school of his choice.

Exactly one year later, Virginia was hard at work when one of her assistants told her an unfamiliar man had asked to see her. Virginia walked outside and saw a clean-cut gentleman dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt. For a moment, she had no clue who he was, but as he began to speak, she recognized him. It was Joe.

"I want to thank you for helping me," he said. "When I saw my Joseph succeed in school, it made me want to do better too." He informed her of his progress in an employment training program and his work toward a GED. He had joined a substance abuse rehabilitation program and had finally reconnected with a second son whom he had neglected. He was a changed man.

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This is just one of hundreds of unpublicized stories of lives that have been changed by a citywide school voucher program that has given new opportunities to inner-city families in the nation’s capital. That program was passed by Congress and signed by the president, but it’s impossible to imagine Washington’s vouchers without Virginia Walden Ford, founder of an organization known as D.C. Parents for School Choice.

Virginia grew up in racially tense Little Rock, Ark., in the 1950s. Her father, William H. Fowler, was the first in his family to attend high school. He went on to earn a master’s degree in education administration and become the first black administrator in the Little Rock School District. Virginia’s mother, Marion V. Fowler Armstrong, was one of four black teachers integrated into formerly all-white schools.

So it was natural that Virginia entered her adult life valuing education. Having married in 1970, she moved with her husband in 1977 to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the next 16 years for a cultural exchange program (she and her husband divorced in 1985). In 1992, she and her twin sister, Harrietta Fowler, co-founded a day care center and operated it until 1996, when Virginia made a decision about her son’s education that would alter not only her own life, but the lives of others as well.

Virginia’s son William, the sixth of her eight children, had begun showing signs of a negative influence from his local public school when he was just 11. His grades had slipped, and he had started acting as if he didn’t care any more for his studies. After one of his friends was paralyzed in a beating by some bullies, William had begun imitating the thugs, using derogatory language, skipping school and hanging out with a bad crowd. By his freshman year of high school, he had had run-ins with the police and a dozen suspensions.

As Virginia had fretted over William’s future, a neighbor had stopped by and inquired about him. Hearing of William’s problems, the neighbor did something momentous: He offered to pay William’s tuition to a local private school where he knew William could succeed.

Some parents might have demurred when faced with this unexpected generosity; others might have doubted the value of the idea. Not Virginia. She knew what a good school would mean to William. She gladly accepted this offer from a neighbor she hardly knew.

Within a week of attending the new school, William’s behavior began to change. In the next two years, he excelled in both academics and athletics. He completed his senior year at a public charter school and graduated first in his class.

Seeing her son turn around so dramatically, Virginia resolved to try to create similar opportunities for other children trapped in Washington’s system of failing public schools. In 1997, while still wondering what she, just one person, could do to help other children in similar situations, Virginia decided to hold a meeting to tell other parents about legislation recently proposed in Congress to provide school vouchers for private schooling to District of Columbia parents. Very few parents attended this first meeting, but she was soon invited to testify on Capitol Hill and tell the success story of her own son William.

Returning to her neighborhood with a contagious confidence, she stepped up her efforts to encourage other parents frustrated with Washington’s public schools to work for change on behalf of their children. She began volunteering with the Center for Education Reform and the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise to organize and inform parents about educational options. "I knew that legislation is complex business, but my own parents instilled in me a spirit of curiosity and taught me to always ask questions," she says. The idea that parents might be able to opt out of a bad school and shop for something better offered Washington’s children their first real hope for better educational opportunities in years.

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When President Bill Clinton vetoed the voucher bill in May 1998, Virginia’s tireless spirit was not daunted. She began working with Friends of Choice in Urban Schools to inform parents about charter schools. A few months later, she opened a humble office in the basement of an apartment building, hired a small staff with private funds she had raised, and launched a new organization, D.C. Parents for School Choice. It was to be an information clearinghouse for Washington families interested in providing their children new education-al opportunities, such as after-school programs, tutoring programs or enrollment in the 18 new charter schools that had opened that fall.

D.C. Parents for School Choice gained national attention in 2002 when the constitutionality of the state of Ohio’s voucher program for Cleveland students was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. School choice proponents in Cleveland asked Virginia to find supporters to rally outside the court, and when the day for the hearing arrived, she mustered 500 parents.

Virginia and her colleagues felt emboldened by this first major display of public support. Their sense of victory grew when the constitutionality of the Ohio plan was upheld in a landmark 5-4 ruling.

Then in 2003, Arizona Representative Jeff Flake decided to introduce new legislation providing school vouchers for needy children in Washington. He asked around for local support and heard about Virginia from people in the D.C. charter school community. He asked Virginia whether she could find a few parents willing to attend a press conference to announce the introduction of the bill. Called to action, Virginia, working with a coalition of organizations committed to improving education in the District of Columbia, led the drive to rally parents to the cause. On the day of the press conference, a hundred parents packed into the small press room to face skeptical reporters, and they made a powerful case.

As the voucher bill began its turbulent journey through the grinding legislative process, D.C. Parents for School Choice changed its strategy. No longer were parents to be educated on current options for their children; parents were now to educate legislators and the media on new options parents needed for their children. For 10 months, Virginia worked closely with parents and children as they politely but relentlessly lobbied Congress. Every single day that Congress was in session, there were 20 to 30 parents on Capitol Hill wearing "D.C. Parents for School Choice" T-shirts and talking to lawmakers and the media. Over the course of the effort, 2,000 volunteers were involved in photo shoots, press conferences, petition drives and rallies.

It was not an easy fight. Opposition to the bill was fierce and often underhanded. Virginia was misrepresented in the media and accused of trying to damage the public schools. Epithets and even death threats were leveled at her. The well-financed public school employee unions railed against her. Even D.C.’s congressional representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, "would not listen to anything we had to say," Virginia recalls. "At times it seemed like almost everyone in a position of power opposed us, except the parents." Virginia relied on her family and close friends for support.

Slowly, the political dominoes fell. Parents’ undeniable support for the D.C. vouchers led to an endorsement of the bill from Kevin Chavous, the chair of the Education Committee for the Council for the District of Columbia. Then on March 28, 2003, Peggy Cafritz, president of the D.C. Board of Education, wrote a powerful commentary in The Washington Post:

"One of three children in the District lives in poverty. One of three adults in this city is functionally illiterate. Each was once a child whom we failed to educate, a child we delivered to a life of dependency and an overburdened social service system, a child we excluded from the workforce, a child that we excluded from democracy. If the past is prologue, this problem will not be solved by politicians or pundits."

Cafritz went on to vindicate the role of private schools. "Schools, be they public, private, religious or secular, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jewish, make an indelible contribution to the fabric and character of a community," she wrote. "Through schools we pass on the values and mores of our society to our children. No community, including one bereft of self-government, should forsake or be denied its responsibility to educate its children."

When D.C.’s mayor, Anthony Williams, signed on, the momentum for choice was unstoppable. Congress simply could not ignore the pleas of desperate parents; nor could it ignore the evidence. Just 10 percent of the district’s fourth-graders were proficient in reading, and a whopping 76 percent performed below grade level in math, in spite of per-pupil spending nearly twice the national average for public schools. In early 2004, the D.C. voucher legislation was passed, and President George W. Bush signed it into law.

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And suddenly, Virginia’s work had just begun. Vouchers under the program were awarded to qualifying applicants by lottery, and only those poor enough to qualify for the federal government’s school lunch program were eligible. But it wasn’t as if the parents who qualified for a voucher magically knew how to apply for one. There had been little time to educate the community, and opponents of the bill had gone around D.C. neighborhoods telling parents that vouchers were a trap and a deception. In the first year of the program, not all of the vouchers were claimed, allowing critics to attack the program as lacking real demand.

In response, D.C. Parents for School Choice held more than 100 meetings over a couple of months to tell parents about the voucher opportunities now available. By the second year of the program, there were twice as many applicants as there were slots allowed under the law.

The first group to testify to the success of the D.C. voucher program was the same group fighting for it all along: the parents. They found that in private schools, their children were safer and had access to programs with more opportunities.

"Kids are going to succeed if the world is opened up to them," says Virginia. She points to Breanna Walton, an 8-year-old third-grader, who wants to be a translator at the United Nations, and who has a head start on that dream thanks to courses in Arabic and Spanish at the private school she now attends. Virginia also mentions Jordan White, a 15-year-old 10th-grader who was finally able to refine her talent for art when she transferred to a private school with a strong art program. "I thank God for making all this possible," says Virginia, "and I hope Congress will listen to the people and let this program succeed and grow."

Today, D.C. Parents for School Choice has even more work to do. Around 1,800 children each year now receive the $7,500 voucher, which can be used to help pay for everything from private school tuition to uniforms and transportation costs to schools within the city. Virginia meets with 50 to 300 parents a month to help them with their children’s transition to private schools and to teach them how to be more personally involved with their children’s education and growth.

Virginia is also gearing up for another fight in Congress. Opponents of the voucher program are preparing to kill it when it expires at the end of 2008, leaving children without coverage after the 2008-2009 school year.

Regardless of the battles ahead, Virginia’s victory is one that nobody thought possible a decade ago. It is a story of students who were once failing now thriving, and of parents who were once discouraged now inspired — and all because Virginia Walden Ford turned the kindness she received from a neighbor into a program to help thousands of struggling D.C. parents who want their children to achieve a better life.