We sit down with EdChoice board member Virginia Walden Ford to discuss her book, School Choice: A Legacy to Keep. In it, she describes growing up the daughter of the first black assistant superintendent of the Little Rock school district, and how she became a champion for educational choice.
Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I am honored to be joined by the great Virginia Walden Ford, school choice pioneer, member of the EdChoice board of directors, and the inspiration behind the feature film, Miss Virginia. Today’s conversation will be about her new book, School Choice: A Legacy to Keep.
Jason Bedrick: Virginia, welcome to the podcast.
Virginia Walden Ford: Thank you for having me.
Jason Bedrick: Believe me, my pleasure. So, your book opens with a rather shocking anecdote, the image seared into your memory as a young girl, watching as a cross burned in your front yard. How did that happen?
Virginia Walden Ford: That’s correct. Well, my dad was the first black assistant superintendent of the Little Rock school district, and this is 1967. As you would probably think, there were people who did not think he should have that position. The Ku Klux Klan was one of those people, and they decided to send a message to our family. I’m from Arkansas, so we’d heard about those kind of things before, but having it actually happen to our family was absolutely the scariest situation I’ve ever been in. So, that night, we were all sitting around looking at the TV or something, and daddy went to the door for whatever reason, and saw the cross burning. As the cross was burning, we heard a crash, and a rock came through the window and landed in my baby sister’s bed. Fortunately, she was not there, but I remember we was crying. It’s all girls in our family, and we were crying and asking daddy what was going on. He was so angry, but so… He’s so wonderful, and he told us that people are oftentimes mean. We knew about the Klan. We were well-informed kids of the South—black kids of the South. But, he comforted us.
Then at some point, we were all together in a room, and he and a neighbor went outside, and we heard gunshots. That really scared us. We found out later he was shooting in the air, just trying to scare people away, but it was devastating. It was something that stayed with me for a long, long time.
Jason Bedrick: I’ll say, after reading the book, the movie is incredible, Miss Virginia, which I highly recommend all our listeners should run out there to the theaters. If it’s still in theaters when you’re listening to this, you should watch it. If not, it’ll probably be on Netflix or one of these other providers. I wish, after reading the book, that it was a Netflix series because many of the stories of your youth, growing up in Arkansas as the schools are just being desegregated, were truly cinematic. There was the anecdote with the bus full of black and white kids stopping at a gas station, only to get shot up. Getting out of there, no one got hurt, thank God, but then seeing that the side of the bus was riddled with bullets, making a wrong turn at one point, stopping at a church to ask for directions, and what did you discover?
Virginia Walden Ford: The Ku Klux Klan.
Jason Bedrick: Right. You were at a Klan meeting, not a church. Then, why did you have to retake your math class, even though you were really good at math?
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, my dad was, like I said, assistant superintendent, so when this happened, I had tried to explain to him that I felt like the teacher had been unfair to me because I was good at math, and I shouldn’t have been failing. He called a meeting. It was really interesting because once she found out I was his daughter, then she tried to kind of backpedal, but my dad called a meeting. He did some little research and found out that a lot of the black kids had been failing because she wouldn’t call on us, and our grade was 50 percent of her grading curve. But my dad, wanting to be fair… Remember, he was the first black assistant superintendent. We were his daughters. He never wanted it to look like favorites were being paid to us, so instead of just changing the grade, which I though he should have, they had me take the class in summer school, which I felt was a punishment. But I got an A. So, it became very clear that something had happened so it went into her permanent record.
But after that, so many kids that I grew up with, black kids, came forward and said, “I had that same experience.” I think further research was done, but I was a kid, and I got an A, and it changed my grade on my transcript. So, even though I was mad because I had to go to summer school, I was glad that it changed my grade because I knew that the one thing I was really good at was math, and this was a geometry class. I loved geometry. It was just disheartening, but it was one of the first times I kind of saw the realities of life. I knew that my dad, as wonderful as he was, had to make decisions that was sometimes hard for him, and I’m sure that was really hard for him.
Jason Bedrick: Now, you mentioned your father was a top administrator in a traditional public school in Arkansas. Before that, he was the principal at several others. Your mom was a public school teacher. You attended public schools. Your children, for most of their academic career, were in public education. How did you come to lead a movement fighting for school choice in our nation’s capital?
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, interestingly enough, my older kids were really academically driven, so they would’ve done well anywhere. They managed to find mentors. We managed to find programs they could get into. But my youngest son had had some learning problems. He had some speech problems early on, so he was already labeled. But I also saw, when he entered middle school, that there was just such a change in what I had seen with my other children. It seemed to be less interest in helping kids move forward. I remember a teacher telling me something to the effect that I shouldn’t waste my time on him because he was never going to do well anyway. Who tells a mother that? So, that’s when I was really determined that this child was not going to fail. I knew he was smart, but others seemed to not be so sure.
So, by the time he got to high school, I was terrified. I was scared. He was getting in trouble. He had made some choices that were really, really, really bad. We had a lot of gang activity and drug activity in our community, and he was getting pulled into the streets. That really scared me, and I knew that I had to do something different for him. But, like most single mothers at that time, and even now actually, looking at a private school was not even on the radar. That was not even something we could think about. We were barely holding on taking care of our families, paying the bills we already had.
A neighbor offered to help us, and he did. He paid a portion of… We chose a private school for William that was a Catholic school that was nearby. He immediately changed. He became a student. He started being excited about going to school. People oftentimes think I’m exaggerating there, but I’m not. I mean, he would get up before me, and I got up really early. He was 13, and I asked him why the change? To be perfectly honest, I was kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop or something, and he said, and I will never forget him saying this. He said, “Mama, for the first time in my life, people care whether I learn. I’ve never felt that people cared whether I learned or not.” It was the first time he had ever gone to a school without metal detectors. It was just something joyous about how he spoke of that.
But unfortunately, I couldn’t afford it. I mean, the little bit of money this neighbor had helped me pay, I still had a large portion to pay so I’d gotten probably a third job. It was just hard. It was just too hard. I remember there was… Dick Armey and others were talking about a scholarship program, and I read about it and heard about it. I thought this would be perfect for my neighbors and myself if we could have a little bit of help sending our children to school that met their needs better. So, I offered to tell my story. I told it to the House Education and Workforce Committee that Dick Armey chaired. It was like one thing after another. They kept asking me to come back and talk about it. Then I began to talk to my neighbors about it, and we saw that everybody was experiencing, or many people were experiencing, this problem, and we needed to change.
So, we started going to board meetings where they dismissed us. Then, Mr. Armey and others, because they would ask me to come talk to members of Congress, all of a sudden I got this idea… and I probably didn’t really get it. Somebody probably gave it to me, but I got this idea that maybe we could work through Congress, and members of Congress can find a way to offer resources for parents to send their kids to better schools. And, that’s how it started.
Jason Bedrick: Now one of the things you mentioned about your son getting sucked into the gangs, what was so appealing was that they provided a sense of safety, which the schools did not. I’m going to read one paragraph from your book, the beginning of chapter seven where you write, “As someone who lived and breathe the fights over school integration in the 1960s, it became painfully clear to me that nobody would march, fight, picket or protest to get their children into a school in Washington D.C. In Little Rock, black families gave up a lot to get us into Little Rock Central, as Central had a great reputation. But parents in D.C., most of them black, wanted nothing more for their children than to escape the city’s awful public schools.”
That’s just stunning. So, you then started to organize these parents. How did that go at first, your organizing efforts?
Virginia Walden Ford: At first, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was a parent, and I was also one of those parents that were always in the background. I made the cupcakes, and somebody else gave them out kind of parent. Even though I was involved in my children’s education, I knew that going into the communities and saying to black parents, who… There were a lot of factors, and one was there was a fear of complaining because many of them were on public assistance. Many of them had had not pleasant experiences with the schools that their children were in, so convincing them that this might lead to something positive was the hardest part for me. I’m not a natural speaker, even though I’m a natural talker. I’m not a natural public speaker, so that was even hard. I needed to go into the community and talk to people in larger crowds. So, it was hard. It was very hard. I mean, the initial meetings had one or two people, or people weren’t listening, or people were implying that I couldn’t help make any changes just by talking to people, so it was really hard for me.
But there were one or two parents, and it ended up being about 25, who listened and who said, “I want to speak out about my children.” So, that’s what we focused on. Those one or two parents, which was 25 toward the beginning of the legislative fight, talked to other parents, and so it became the whole domino effect. That was just so amazing to me, but it was really hard. There were forces in D.C., and I’ve seen them around the country as well, that told parents not to believe me or members of Congress who were fighting with us, not to listen. That we weren’t telling the truth. We were telling lies. Their kids would never benefit. So, we were up against that. We were up against the other side, which we had a most difficult time with teachers unions, and just opposition, people that just didn’t care about our voices being heard. I don’t know whether they felt like we would be listened to, so that’s why they gave us such a fit, but they certainly did not want us to be heard. So, it was hard. It was hard.
Jason Bedrick: We’re talking now the late 1990s. There’s bipartisan support for the Opportunity Scholarship bill in Congress in 1997, but it’s also opposed by President Clinton. To your point, you quote Lily Eskelsen, who is now Lily Eskelsen Garcia, who is with the National Educator’s Association, the largest teacher’s union, saying that she wanted to slap people like you for “making a cynical false promise to well-meaning desperate parents.” That’s… I mean, at first you described meeting with allies with the Center for Education Reform, Jeanne Allen’s group, in a big empty room with just you and one other parent. But over time, you were able to organize a parent army. So, how did you build trust with those parents when there are so many people… There are Senators out there who… I mean, Senator Ted Kennedy is comparing vouchers to slave plantations. You’ve got the teacher’s union saying this is a false promise. Parents, they don’t know who you are. Why should they trust you? They’ve heard promises before that have never been kept. They’re hard-working. They’re just trying to make ends meet to keep a roof over their kids’ heads and food on the table. How did you get them to trust you, and to come out and actually show up?
Virginia Walden Ford: Interestingly enough, I didn’t at first, but then I told my story. Then, I told them about William. I told them about the problems we had had. I told them about how going to a school that was better for him really impacted him, how he changed. And they began to trust me after they heard my story. I think they started thinking of my as an ally then, and this is somebody who knows what we’re feeling. Then they began slowly to trust me. Word spread, and I remember going to one event, because I’d show up at everything. I was in barbershops and hair salons, anytime there was anything in the community I would be there, talking to parents. At one point, I knew that I was making some headway when somebody yelled, “That’s the education lady. Let’s go talk to her.” Or, Miss Virginia, or voucher lady, or whomever. But they had these pet names and that’s when you know that people are beginning to trust you because they feel comfortable enough to endearingly call you pet names.
But talking to them about my story, they knew that I just wasn’t another person that was coming in that didn’t know exactly what they were feeling because that’s always an issue in our communities when we’re fighting for some cause. People will say, “They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve never experienced that.” But I did, and so they listened to me because I had a story.
Jason Bedrick: So, you get these parents out there. They’re meeting with legislators. They’re showing up at rallies. The bill passes the House in 1997 by one vote, and this would have created the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program for low-income families in the District of Columbia. It was actually a tie broken by Speaker Gingrich, sent over to the Senate in an appropriations bill, then stripped out by Senator Ted Kennedy. But to the rescue, you’ve got a separate bipartisan bill sponsored by Democrat Senators Joseph Lieberman and Mary Landrieu, and then Republicans Sam Brownback and Judd Gregg, from my home state of New Hampshire, and that passes the Senate, eventually passes the House, then what happens?
Virginia Walden Ford: President Clinton vetoed it. I was just too through. When they told me, or when I read it in a paper, heard it on the news, I was just devastated. That was the moment when I said, “Oh, I will never do this again because I don’t want to put parents through this and then have a president just cancel it out like that.” He did, and I was angry. I think that anger, over time, manifested itself into an organizer, an advocate if you will, because I remember that I decided that I was not going to allow this to happen to our children.
Jason Bedrick: Right. President Clinton, when he vetoed it, he was saying it would represent an abandonment of the public schools, right? The other side was saying that well really the problem is just we don’t spend enough on the schools. What did you think about that argument?
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, I thought it was ridiculous because I knew… By this time, I had done a little research. I had learned a little bit. People had been very kind in making sure I had the right information, and I knew that there was a larger amount of money than most of the states, per pupil, going to D.C. kids, and so I thought… We’re talking about a scholarship program, and I believe that one was $2,500, and they’re talking about per pupil allows, I believe at that time, it was around $10,000 per student. Of course, it went up, and went up, and went up, and I thought, “I am so tired of people using money as an excuse not to fix schools, particularly in low-income communities.” I just thought that was not a good argument at all.
So, we decided to continue to fight. There were a couple of years after President Clinton vetoed that legislation that I kind of went into communities and just talked to parents because I was being told that as long as he was in the office, it wouldn’t be a good time. So, when President Bush was elected, everybody felt like it would be a better time since he supported choice. So, we began to fight again.
Jason Bedrick: And you described that this time, one of your big opponents was Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was the delegate from the District of Columbia. She was a non-voting member of Congress, because D.C. doesn’t actually get a vote, and you went toe-to-toe with her in your first Congressional testimony. How did that go?
Virginia Walden Ford: Horrible. Her big thing was you’re not from D.C., so you don’t have any right, fourth generation Washingtonian, but at that time I had children in D.C. schools, so I had every right to talk about D.C. schools. She told us we were being lied to, and we were given scripts, and that we shouldn’t believe anything anybody told us, and that was the problem with it. So, I left there pretty angry, that hearing, but then as I was walking to the subway I got angrier and angrier, and I went, “Oh, no. We’re going to do this. She is not going to just talk down to us like that.” So, that began my wonderful relationship with her, which is left at the moment.
Jason Bedrick: Right. There are some who have said that the character in Miss Virginia, who’s the legislator who opposes School Choice is a thinly veiled reference to representative Holmes Norton. I want to read another paragraph from your book because I thought that it was incredibly insightful. After you describe that battle in Congress, and you at the subway deciding, “You know what? I’m not going to be discouraged. I’m going to keep fighting.” You wrote this: “What opponents like Norton feared, I believe had nothing to do with funding, and everything to do with optics. The sight of children and their parents lined up to apply for scholarships would serve as visual reminders to the entire world that families saw to escape the public education system in the District of Columbia. My willingness to sit before Norton and tell her in public, no less, that parents wanted this program, infuriated and embarrassed her.”
That point about funding, you were pointing out, unlike all the other choice programs in the country, the D.C. program had a provision that entirely “held harmless” the district schools. So, if a student left and took a scholarship, Congress was funding that scholarship, but Congress was continuing to fund the public schools. So, the public schools weren’t going to lose a dime, yet they still opposed the program. So, it wasn’t about money. Like you said, it was about optics.
Virginia Walden Ford: Yes. That was the one thing that really infuriated me. Let’s talk about why we’re really doing this, and she never could. It was about optics. But you know, there’s so many members of Congress who are Democrats who feel like our fight 50 years ago was to get in a building, and it wasn’t. It was about getting equality education. My frustration was that I never could get them to understand, and Ms. Horton has a lot of power. That’s what she exercised with African-American legislators, who many of them who told me, “Oh, we would vote for this, but we’re not going to go up against her.” That’s a fact. That was actually said to me by several. So, I knew that it was going to be hard, but she had her ways of dealing with things and never, ever… For 20 years, I’ve been trying to figure out why she wouldn’t support a program that ultimately would benefit children that were in areas of town that had voted for her. I mean, it never has ceased to amaze me why she doesn’t support this program. She still doesn’t.
It was very sad to me to go up against people that, to be perfectly honest, I have respected at some point in my life and I thought a lot of. This was not a fight I really expected among some people. I knew the unions would hit us. I knew that there would be others that would not want this program, but I never really expected it from African-American legislators. I thought they’d look at our little kids and say this is going… primarily was going to benefit African-American children initially. It just seemed to me the right thing to do. I just never got it, and I still don’t. Which is why after 20 years, I still fight.
Jason Bedrick: Yeah, you didn’t take their opposition sitting down. You created a group, D.C. Parents for School Choice. At that point, you had already been working with the Center for Educational Reform and a number of other groups. What need were you filling? Why did you decide to start this new organization instead of just joining one of the existing ones?
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, because I needed an organization the parents would respond to in a different kind of way, Jason.
Jason Bedrick: Yeah.
Virginia Walden Ford: I needed an organization the parents would respond to differently. I needed something to be a part of an organization that they felt was theirs, and not a part of organizations that already existed. The charter school movement was growing fast in D.C., and even though I support all choice, I knew that our battle was going to be for vouchers, or scholarships, or whatever they wanted to call them. I knew that I needed to separate myself from everybody else to have a true parent organization, and it was the right thing to do because parents flocked to it because it said D.C. Parents for School Choice. I know that’s why. I know they felt more comfortable being a part of an organization such as that, which is why I started it.
Jason Bedrick: Then your organization got a second bite at the apple. There’s the 2000 election, and you liked candidates on both sides. Then Governor Bush was running for president, and he was very supportive of school choice. On the other ticket, although Senator Al Gore was opposed to school choice, his running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman had been a champion of school choice. Ultimately, the president becomes George W. Bush, who then announces that he wants to have the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship pass. So, tell us about the process for fighting for that legislation.
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, we started in the early part of 2003. Actually, Jeff Flake from Arizona called us together in November 2002. He did a press conference that he’s going to write legislation for a scholarship program for D.C., and I remember he called and he said, “Can you bring parents? We’ve heard that you have access to parents that would be willing to speak.” And I said, “Yeah.” We had continued to organize parents, even after President Clinton vetoed that first legislation. I think 100 parents showed up. It filled the room. At that point, other members of Congress were interested in seeing how far this could go, and they became a part of it. Representative Tom Davis, Representative John Boehner and others. Senator Lieberman, even in the midst of kind of a weird time for us, never didn’t champion this program, ever.
So, that began the new fight, if you will, of getting it done. I think we started fighting, going to the Hill, about early 2003, and we were for 10 months every day.
Jason Bedrick: And you describe, I mean, the families getting petitions signed. You handed out a bunch of empty petition sheets and you were hoping for hundreds. You ended up getting 3,000 petitions, even going to prisons and getting people to sign there because these are incarcerated parents whose children are going to these failing schools who don’t want their children to end up the way they ended up. Even some of the prison guards ended up signing the petitions as well.
Now, chapter 12, the aptly-titled “Tremors and Earthquakes,” you describe many elected officials in D.C. who were previously opposed, on the record being opposed to school choice, suddenly and in quick succession reverse themselves and offer full-throated support for school choice. So, how did that happen?
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, it’s really interesting because so many of them did oppose school choice, and told me that. They were kind, but they told me that. But, there was one member of the council who really supported school choice who arranged for us to get a meeting with the Education Committee, which was Kevin Chavous at the time, and a lot of parents showed up and spoke. That was when we saw a turn in behavior and attitudes about supporting a possible scholarship program for D.C. But [inaudible 00:31:30], and I’m not sure if people remember this. She wrote this amazing op-ed in Washington Post that said, “Why not support them? Why not do something different?” That was the turning point. She was an amazing woman but always stayed kind of behind the scenes. But that op-ed kind of turned everything around, and all of a sudden other local elected officials and member of Congress began to say, “This is something we should fight for.” It was a great turnaround, but we had been on the Hill for a couple of months before that happened. We had been going on the Hill, and talking to members of Congress, and telling them about our children, and working with National school choice groups, EdChoice, and… Robert Enlow was one of my biggest supporters, an amazing supporter for all parents, and other organizations that were formed at that time.
So, when the elected officials all of a sudden reversed how they felt, it was like icing on the cake. All of a sudden now, we not only had parents, but we had local elected officials that were supporting us, and school choice organizations, it was a good time for us. We felt like we could win.
Jason Bedrick: And you describe the long road in detail. I know that as the coalition grew, there are more and more meetings. At one point, you’re feeling very frustrated like you’re spending more time talking in these meetings than you are out there on the street, organizing parents, and that’s where Robert Enlow, who at the time he’s working for EdChoice, but who was then known as the Milton and Freedman Foundation, tells you, you need to go out and do what you do best. You need to go organize the parents.
Virginia Walden Ford: Yes. He said, “Don’t worry about this. Just go do what you think is most effective.” He’s been a good friend for many years, for many, many years.
Jason Bedrick: You got those parents out there every single day for 10 months at Capitol Hill, 10:00 a.m after they drop their kids off at school, going around the Hill wearing your white shirts saying “D.C. Parents of School Choice,” talking to the legislators. What effect did that have when these bills started to get filed? At one point, I think there are at least three different bills, two stand-alone bills, one’s in appropriations. How did that process work?
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, once we got started talking then more and more legislators started coming to us, wanting to hear our stories, wanting to see if this is something they could support. It was an amazing turnaround for us. I remember going into legislators offices and signing their little guest book with 100 parents, or 50 parents, or sometimes 25 parents, and we’d be all over Capitol Hill. To see us, it looked like it was way more. At the beginning it was maybe 50, and then it grew to 100, and then it kept growing until we think that for that whole period of time, several thousand parents were involved. The members of Congress saw that, and local elected officials saw that. They saw that we were very, very serious about this fight. We were going to make a difference in what happened to our children if it killed us.
It was a wonderful progression of the fight, if you will, and it was amazing. I remember one time we had about 25 parents on the Hill. I’m not sure if I wrote this in the book. I may have. I write it a lot and talk about it a lot. But a reporter, or a member of congressional staff, I think, came to us and said, “I seen your parents all over the Hill today. I think we had parents on both sides of the Senate and the House, and we were resting on the steps of the Capitol.” She said, “We seen parents around here all day. How many you got? 100? 200? 300?” I say, “Yep.” And that’s what was reported the next day, so that was very cool that they gave us some credibility.
I believe that day we might’ve had 50 parents there, but when you see a bunch of African-American parents, fathers and mothers walking around with white T-shirts with blue letters, then it looked like a lot more. So, we went with it. We always laugh about that because we know how there were not that many there that day, but it didn’t hurt us. It helped us because then I think The Post and The Times ran articles that said, “Hundreds of D.C. parents talking about an opportunity scholarship program for kids take over Capitol Hill.” I think that was one of the articles. We kind of chuckled at that because we knew there wasn’t that many of us, but over time, it did become. I think once the community began to feel that we may have, in fact from a serious corner, it gave us credibility, more people joined us. More and more people joined us. It was wonderful.
Jason Bedrick: You had some incredible successes. You have your bill put into appropriations. It passes the House, but then it gets caught up in the Senate. So, why don’t you tell us a little bit about two incidents in the Senate, Mary Landrieu’s poison pill, and then the Kennedy filibuster.
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, both are great stories. Mary Landrieu, we had met with the night before it went to appropriations in the Senate with Senator Burr’s committee. She assured us, and there were 40 of us I think that went to her, that she was going to support this bill, and that she had our back, and blah, blah, blah. So when we left, we knew that that would be one more vote for us. Not only did she not vote for it, but she got up and gave an impassioned speech about how nobody else should support it, which caused Senator Burr to suspend the meeting. They were going to come back a couple days later and vote.
But as we were leaving, she approached us and she started talking about… I guess she had to explain herself, talking about why she didn’t support it and why she had changed her mind since the night before. So, one of the kids that was with us—and it had been a school holiday because we didn’t take kids out of school. Mosiah said, “Where do your kids go to school?” She said they went to kind of an elite private school in D.C., but our kids wouldn’t be able to use the scholarship to go there because of whatever… It wouldn’t be enough. She gave several reasons. And Mosiah said, “But we could at least apply.” She hesitated, and it really upset him, and it upset us because it appeared that all of a sudden she didn’t think we were good enough to go to these schools.
So, our funder, who was Patrick Rooney, who was an amazing man and became almost like a grandfather to me. He said, “We have to let her constituents know this.” It’s written in both books, I believe. He said, “We’re going to run a full page ad in the Times Tribune in New Orleans calling her out. It was a great ad. People in New Orleans were really mad. That’s when I got my first death threat, but it was the truth. She flipped, and it was wrong. It was just plain, old wrong. I think a few days later when they voted again, after the article ran, she voted present. So, she never did own it.
Senator Kennedy, he had announced publicly that he was going to filibuster it, which would’ve filibustered the government, could’ve stopped the government, but he… Another, this time on TV, it was an ad where I was talking, surrounded by kids, beautiful African-American, Hispanic kids, and basically all I said was, “Senator Kennedy, your brother supported us. Why don’t you?” But we also ran some ads from the civil rights movement, so he got really mad at us. He called me.
Jason Bedrick: And he called you.
Virginia Walden Ford: At home. So, I answer the phone and I thought it was somebody playing a joke on me. I said, “Oh, come on. Who is this?” He said, “This is Senator Kennedy. Don’t you recognize my voice?” I went, “Oops, yes.” He said, “Stop spreading propaganda. You make me sound like I’m racist.” I said, “Well, if the shoe fits,” or something flippant that you don’t say to your nice-based Senator, but I did because I was feeling pretty good about that time and hung the phone up. He did not filibuster. I don’t know what he thought about after he hung the phone up, or who he talked to, but he did not filibuster it.
Those are really wonderful times in our fight. It was when we started realizing how much power our voices had.
Jason Bedrick: And then it passes the House, 209-208 on the first vote. Then a later vote, 210-206, really close. Then, it’s signed by President Bush. So, then what, right? That’s a case closed, end of story, right? Or, no.
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, not. It was signed by President Bush, who was an amazing advocate for our group. I mean, he did shows and programs with us, he and Secretary Page. He was just amazing in his support of this program, but then we had to implement it. We had to get out in the community and get people to sign up for it, and people didn’t come. We’re like, “Whoa, what happened?” So, we went back out into the community and what we were finding out is that people who had opposed the program were in the community telling people not to sign up for it because it was not real, and it would hurt the community more than help the community, and all those kind of lies. So, we actually took teams out into low-income communities where people were qualified for the program, and talked to the personally.
But the first try of having a signup at the convention center just didn’t work. People just didn’t come. They were scared. They were afraid that if they signed up for the program, this somehow would affect their lives, or their children’s lives, or just crazy stuff. But, when we went out into the community, we had meetings in Boys and Girls clubs, in churches, in people’s homes, and we’d talk to them. We answered their questions. I think at the end of the second period of signing up after the convention center, thousands signed up. A lot of times, these kind of programs kind of resonate through the grapevine. So, the first year, we had a lot of people that signed up by going into the community with teams, and always me because people needed to see my face. They needed to see me there. The second year, the grapevine in the African-American community had been so strong, so prevalent, that we had lots more. Every year, it got to be more and more for five years.
Jason Bedrick: So, eventually—and this is an important lesson I think for those around the country who want to organize—the legislative fight is really the beginning. You get a bill passed. Now you’ve got the program. This program has to be implemented, and you can’t just rely on the government to implement it or for the program to just implement itself. Your organization, and others like yours, still had to be out there making sure that people got the information, knew to sign up, combated disinformation, and you describe… I mean, there’s one point I should’ve mentioned before, all the contradictions against, when they were arguing against the program. Some were saying, “Oh, no. These D.C. schools are great. We’re implementing new programs and they’re working.” Meanwhile, other organizations are saying, “Oh, the schools are terrible. They’re crumbling. We can’t possibly afford to have money leave the system,” even though no money was going to leave the system.
Virginia Walden Ford: Exactly.
Jason Bedrick: Or, “Oh, if we have this mass exodus, it’s going to be terrible.” On the other hand, there are some organizations saying, “Oh, this program is only going to help a select few.” Right?
Virginia Walden Ford: It was all of those, Jason. And more.
Jason Bedrick: It was the spaghetti against the wall, hoping something would stick, right?
Virginia Walden Ford: Exactly. The one that always fascinated me was we had just gotten this law passed, and all of a sudden people go around saying,”Virginia Walden lied to you.” I’m like, “No I didn’t.” It was a challenge getting parents to get out and sign up and release information. The kind of information they had to have was financial information, and that’s hard for anybody to let folk know what their financial information is. So, it was hard. It was real hard, but it was wonderful when we’d go into a group of parents and they’d be excited and ready to sign up and have all their paperwork. Sometimes we would have to help them. Then getting information out about the schools and watching the kids begin to do well in the schools that their parents had chosen, it was an amazing time.
Jason Bedrick: You have a government study show that you’re 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school if you received a voucher versus the students that applied for a voucher and did not win the voucher lottery. So, it was an apples-to-apples random assignment trial comparison. Really, even these kids had access to safer schools, higher parental satisfaction, so this is really impressive results. But then despite these impressive results, you find yourself back in Congress, trying to save the program. What happened?
Virginia Walden Ford: Well, President Obama canceled us out the first year, and the House was still—
Jason Bedrick: To be clear, by canceled you out, you mean that in the budget that he submitted, he eliminated the program. So, the program would’ve disappeared.
Virginia Walden Ford: Exactly. So, that was the initial thing we came up against. We realized that somehow we had to convince him and get this program funded and back into the federal budget, and he wasn’t biting. So once again, we had to organize parents, but at that point, the House was still under Democratic control, and then we had the mid-year elections and all of a sudden, the Republicans had the House again. Representative Boehner said to me, “Don’t worry, Virginia Walden Ford. We’re going to get this program back.” Then he became Speaker of the House, and he called me again and said, “Get parents together, and I’ll tell you when to come up the Hill for our press conference saying we’re going to have this program back.” Everybody knows, somehow he managed to get it back. I never really asked because I really didn’t want to know, but I was just happy we got it back. I remember going up there that day and he said, “I told you. We got this back.”
But then, the president decided that his compromise was going to be that they were going to allow the kids to stay in the program, but no other children would be admitted. There were 216 letters that had gone out to parents, telling them that they had won a scholarship. So, those parents are really disappointed. So then, we had to fight for them, for the 216. That was an amazing fight. I remember we camped out at Secretary Duncan’s office for weeks, several weeks, with hundreds of parents, and eventually we won. But it was John Boehner, Senator Lieberman, Senator Collins and other members of Congress who are our heroes, even to this day. They are my heroes, and they are our heroes, but it was hard.
President Obama had been, because he was the first African-American President. Most of the people in the program had voted for him for the first time in their lives. So, what they said to me, “Oh, don’t worry Virginia, President Obama’s going to save this program.” I had to explain to them that that wasn’t going to happen. People cried. I mean, they were so sure that we were going to be OK, so that was hard. It’s hard being an advocate when you see these kind of situations happening. It was real hard.
Jason Bedrick: Few people have as much advocacy experience in school C=choice, or really in anything, as you do. If you had a few lessons that you learned over the years that you could distill from all your experience, what would those lessons be?
Virginia Walden Ford: I think what I do tell parents is first thing, be strong, and always know for sure that you have every right to be there, that you can fight. You’re American, you can fight for what you believe in, but you’ve got to stay strong and you can’t allow the opposition to make you feel that you’re not doing the right thing, or make you feel frustrated or uncomfortable, which you will feel. My one thing to parents, and now that we have smartphones it’s even easier, but I used to tell parents, “Bring a picture of your child, and when somebody’s mean to you or we lose in a hearing or you feel bad about what you’re doing or scared, take that picture out and look at that child. That’s who you’re fighting for. If you don’t fight for them, nobody else will.” Parents are the first advocates for their children. We have to continue, and we had to then, teach parents that their voices are going to be the ones that are going to be heard by the government, or by anybody, but have to be in large numbers. They can’t be afraid.
Even to this day sometimes, and I am sometimes hit with negative kinds of things, I think about my son, and I think about how well he’s doing now, and I think about how he would not have done so well had I not fought for him and other children. It helps me. It calms me. So, I just tell parents to continue to step up and use their voices. Say what you feel. Organize parents in your communities, in your neighborhood, and talk to people. Sometimes people that you might not expect yourself to be talking to, member of Congress, local elected officials, don’t be afraid to talk to them about what you believe. Most of them are parents. Most of them had to make choices for their own children. So, that’s what I tell them. I tell them, “Be strong, be loving, be dignified, but get the job done because you can, because they’re your children, and you have every right to be there.” That’s what I tell them now.
Jason Bedrick: Well, we still have a long way to go, but we’ve made tremendous progress over the last two decades thanks to advocates like you. We stand on those shoulders of giants like you when we’re advocating for School Choice today. So, thank you for coming on the podcast, and thank you for your decades of service to American’s children.
Virginia Walden Ford: Thank you for having me. I’m just so appreciative of the support I’ve gotten from EdChoice and other organizations through the years. It’s been an amazing journey, and that’s what I hope the movie and the book will share with people.
Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Virginia Walden Ford. She’s the inspiration behind the movie, Miss Virginia, which you must run out and see right away. And also, go get her book, School Choice: A Legacy to Keep. Virginia, thank you for coming on the podcast.
Virginia Walden Ford: You’re welcome.
Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.