Our failing public schools weigh heavily on many Americans’ minds, but Virginia Walden Ford is an optimist. After 21 years of school-choice advocacy, she’s seen what a difference even just one voice can make.
“I’m hearing from parents from all over the country who are saying ‘If you can do it, I can do it,’ and is that not what we want? We want parents to know they can be successful,” Walden Ford said.
Walden Ford founded D.C. Parents for School Choice, the group that fought for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has given more than 11,000 children scholarships to attend a private or parochial school of the families’ choice since its inception in 2004. Today, Walden Ford lives in Arkansas, where she runs an after-school food program and is still in constant contact with parents fighting for school choice across the country.
School Choice Saves Lives
Walden Ford was a single mother of three in Washington. Her two older children had done well with school, but when it came to her youngest son, William, she felt he just needed a little more. School administrators had dismissed her son as someone who just wasn’t very smart, but she knew that he was.
“He felt nobody cared whether he learned or not, that was his mantra. ‘They don’t care, Mama, nobody cares,'” Walden Ford said. William had decided that since no one cared, he wasn’t going to school.
She could see clearly that rather than focus his energy on academics, he was drawn in by the life of crime on the next street over in their neighborhood, where drug dealers drew kids in with gifts to recruit them to work for them. Kids, like her William, mistakenly thought that these drug dealers would protect them, and they looked up to these pseudo-community leaders.
William ended up suspended when he was 11, and Walden Ford sat on her front porch crying. Her story took a fortunate turn when a neighbor listened to her story and offered to help her with a scholarship to send William to a private school.
The changes were near immediate.
Walden Ford and her son visited several schools the first day she realized she now had a choice of where to send her son to school. She saw his reaction immediately, when they set foot in the school they ultimately picked.
“There were no metal detectors, kids looked happy and engaged, and I watched his attitude change. He smiled and looked around, and he said, ‘This is cool!'” Walden Ford said. “It was that whole environment of kids learning and excited, and having a good time at school that up until that point that he felt he was not experiencing. Just seeing what it could be like in an environment that welcomed him was an amazing moment.”
“I remember looking at his face and thinking, you know, maybe this is something that will save my child. And it did.”
Within a couple of weeks, her son was getting up early and ready to go to school, she stopped getting calls about her son cutting school, and he was doing all his homework.
“I asked, ‘What’s different, honey?’ and he said, ‘These people care,'” Walden Ford said. “It was dramatic, actually, because he was young and not always willing to articulate what he was feeling, but he felt welcomed. He felt that he could accomplish anything.”
“He and I recently talked about that field, walking into a school where people have higher expectations of what you could do. And he felt it.”
Fighting for Her Community
It might have been simple to just breathe easy now that her son was in a safe and stable learning environment, but Walden Ford couldn’t do that. She looked around her neighborhood and saw child after child in the exact same place her son William was in not long ago.
“It ignited something in me,” Walden Ford said. “I had to fight for my son, but I had to fight for other kids, too. That was kind of my ‘aha’ moment, was you can speak out for your son, but someone has to speak out on behalf of other children.”
Walden Ford spoke to other parents in her community, and she heard stories similar to hers. She heard desperation and an urgent wish to find alternatives for their kids.
“Hearing the despair in their voices because they felt like they had no right to speak out for their children became a really big issue for me,” Walden Ford said. “They’re our kids.”
“These children in this neighborhood, if nobody stands up for them, we lose them,” she said. “We lived in a community where we saw kids make decisions and go in ways that were terribly frightening for us as parents.”
Walden Ford started organizing parents, having meetings in people’s homes, and then they started to use their voices. They went to board of education meetings, talked to legislators, and this led to joining up with people who wanted to bring the scholarship program to Washington.
“You know, in most low-income communities, parents don’t think they have any right to speak out about their children, they do that and put up with whatever we’re given. And we realized that we didn’t have to do that there,” Walden Ford said.
“Until I started speaking at meetings and people started listening to me, I felt pretty hopeless, too.”
It wasn’t until she started using her voice that she realized how important it was. If she spoke, people would listen. And other parents could do the same.
“Everybody cares about what happens to their kids. And when you start talking to people and telling people how you feel, you do get a response,” Walden Ford said.
Their kids were going to schools full of violence, with a near 50 percent dropout rate, and it was clear for both parents and children that their school environment was doing far more harm than good.
Speaking out created momentum. Parents saw they could have an impact, and that inspired them to do more, passing it on. Once the scholarship initiative was underway, parents continued to advocate for their community, and took to the streets to help other families sign their children up for the program.
But it wasn’t without challenges. Walden Ford laughed and said perhaps she was naive when she started, but she didn’t realize there would be opposition, let alone so much of it every step of the way, or that it would be so vicious.
There were politicians who didn’t want to support school choice, and teachers unions that didn’t want money to go to other schools, and other people whose interests aligned with those against school choice who would say false or hurtful things. Walden Ford said perhaps the worst the opposition accomplished was convincing parents that they didn’t have a voice, and weren’t allowed to speak out.
“So we took pictures of our children, and we put them in our purses and our pockets, and when it got tough, we took those pictures out and looked at our kids. Those small faces would smile back at us and to tell us to continue,” Walden Ford said.
“For all these years of advocacy, and all the pain and sacrifice that parents went through, the reward is seeing kids do well.”
“What I saw in the children was willingness to reach whatever expectations were set in the schools for them,” Walden Ford said. “I’ve followed some of the kids over the years, and they’ve gone to college and graduated and got really good jobs, and they’ll tell you in a heartbeat, they don’t think that would have happened had they not been given the opportunity to go to a school that better served them.”
And children are absolutely aware that what they need is a better environment for education.
“I talk to a lot of parents, a lot of kids, and not one time, not one time was a child unable to talk to me about wanting to be in a place where people accepted them and wanted them to learn,” she said.
Walden Ford remembers being 14 years old, standing on the steps of Central High School in Little Rock with her twin sister, Harrietta. She, along with 133 other black students, would be going to a newly desegregated high school just a decade after the “Little Rock 10” made history.
She didn’t want to go.
But her father told her and her sister they had a responsibility to attend that school and do well.
“Because we had younger siblings that would follow us, and how would the world look at us if we didn’t do well?” she remembered. “I think that shaped my advocacy, even right at that time. At 14, I believed I could change the world. It sounds cliche, but it’s a fact.”
Her father was the first black assistant superintendent in the school district. Her mother was one of the first black teachers to join a previously all-white school in Little Rock. They imparted in their children the responsibility to serve.
“Not to be a part of the problem but a part of the solution. All of us have heard that, but my parents were strict about telling us, ‘Make a difference.’ My dad always told me, ‘Make a difference in the world, Ginny. Don’t just sit around chitchatting about something, really make a difference. Do something special, do it in your neighborhood, do it in your community,'” Walden Ford said. They taught by example, and were pillars of their community. Neighbors always came to the Waldens’ home, because that was the community center.
“I thought about making a difference and wanting to do something that was positive in the world. So, years later when I had a family and I saw something that needed to be changed, it was not a foreign idea for me,” Walden Ford said. “My parents were so wise, and they taught us—I have four sisters, so five girls—to make a difference in the world. That’s what I’ve passed on to my kids. That’s what I pass on to the parents I work with: Do something to serve your communities.”
“Even if it’s just your little world, make a difference. Even if it’s in your apartment building,” she said. “I’m leaving a legacy to my children of service.”
Walden Ford thought a lot about her family as she finished her autobiography. The portion about their legislative fight was easy to recount, but the personal stuff had her really digging in.
“This started with a great-grandfather that bought his family out of slavery and passed all of that on to us,” Walden Ford said. “I hope it will give [readers] energy and inspiration.”
Walden Ford’s mission has been to empower parents to use their voices.
“They have a right to speak. They are their children’s first teachers,” she said. She remembers that as the fight went on, they drew more supporters from higher levels, up to Congress. “It became empowering—I like that word. I like that parents were empowered.”
“I believe that people really genuinely want kids to do well. Sometimes you’ve just got to plant a seed in their minds about how to do that.”