Virginia (Ginny) Gentles gave this speech at an April 7, 2022, event celebrating the launch of the Independent Women’s Center’s new Education Freedom Center. She is the Center’s director.

Hello friends. Many of us have worked together, fought together, and sometimes fought with each other, to expand education freedom for a long time. Some of us have joined forces more recently to protect children from gender ideology. And a handful of you are my community’s parent heroes—you fought so very hard to open Northern Virginia schools when negligent superintendents and school board members were determined to keep them closed. I’m so thankful all of you are here to celebrate the launch of IWF’s Education Freedom Center.

I often describe myself as a long-time school choice advocate. Over 25 years ago, Jeanne Allen’s Center for Education Reform newsletters convinced me that it was cruel to trap lower-income children in failing schools. Ever since, in a variety of positions here in DC, in Florida and even in Canada, I’ve been advocating to create education options for children and families poorly served by the public school system.

My most important role, of course, is being the mother of two school-aged girls. I live in Arlington, Virginia. Families in my area experienced over a year of closed schools, disastrous remote learning, misspent “emergency” federal funding, refusal to meet the needs of children with disabilities, lowered academic standards, and a school board determined to ignore the impact of learning loss on students from low-income households.

When my school district closed schools in March 2020, district leaders refused to even try to educate children remotely that spring. Parents were instructed to access materials online for their younger children. Middle school and high school students no longer received grades and were given weekly assignments with no direct instruction, teacher-student interaction or accountability.

Just before the 2020-21 school year began, the district reneged on a plan to open two days a week for interested families, and offered only remote learning for the majority of the school year. Of course, that decision led to plummeting reading, math and science assessments. The superintendent and school board members refused to open schools’ doors, despite clear evidence that:

  • Low-income students were suffering academically. Failure rates on the state’s math assessment increased by an average of 42 percentage points for students attending schools with a high percentage of low-income families. Failures rates for students in higher-income schools increased by 14 percentage points.
  • Students with special needs were suffering academically, behaviorally and emotionally because the district refused to fulfill their federal obligation to provide assistance, accommodations and therapies to students with IEPs. 
  • Children of all ages were suffering from mental health challenges due to loneliness, canceled activities, and limited athletic opportunities.

When schools “opened” in spring 2021, students were allowed to attend only for two days a week, and those two days were shortened. 

In the midst of this man-made disaster, I pulled my children out of the local public school system, and eventually enrolled them in a small faith-based private school. The school expects students to behave and be respectful; to complete daily homework; and to push themselves even when lessons are hard. It keeps my daughters safe. It’s exactly what my family needed.

So, that’s my school choice story. 

My kids weren’t okay during Covid-era closures. Many of your kids weren’t either. We’re now bombarded with study after devastating study revealing the widespread academic and emotional harm school district bureaucrats, teachers unions, and union-supported school board members inflicted on America’s children. 

Parents know their children deserve a better education than the one provided to them for the last two years. Parents know they deserve power over their children’s education, but unfortunately school districts and unions hold all of the power in areas without education freedom. 

What happened during Covid cannot happen again. IWF has launched the Education Freedom Center to ensure it won’t happen again.

For too long, the existing education system in our country prioritized the needs and desires of its employees. The teachers unions ensured that union-backed school board candidates were elected into office in order to implement union goals.

For too many years, children have suffered under this adult-centered regime. Even before the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of U.S. students were unable to read at grade level and only 15% of 8th graders were proficient in U.S. History.

At IWF, we believe that no child should be trapped in a failing system. We support policies that enable parents to take their children’s taxpayer-funded education dollars to the education providers of their choosing—whether it be a public, private, charter, or home school.

Historically large numbers of families are now leaving traditional government assigned schools. Traditional public school enrollment decreased by over 3% (1.5 M students) last school year. Homeschooling rates doubled. Families in areas with perpetually closed public schools, but fully open private schools, eagerly transferred their children. And public charter school enrollment increased by 7.1% (240,000 students). Even when schools reopened, ongoing frustrations with over-zealous quarantine policies, mask mandates, sexually explicit books in school libraries, and lessons focused on CRT and gender ideology, fueled a continued exodus from traditional public schools. 

Thankfully, in 2021, state legislators recognized the soaring demand for educational options, and expanded or created new school choice programs in 20 states. School choice policies empower parents, rather than distant bureaucrats, to direct their children’s education. School choice programs give families purchasing power to direct their children’s educational path, rather than remain beholden to central government negligence. Education freedom policies also send a wake up call to school districts: serve students well, or the students will leave.

Clearly it’s time to fund students, not systems, and develop policies that allow a wide variety of education options to flourish. Our country must prioritize parental rights and education freedom rather than bureaucratic systems and union control.

The Education Freedom Center will build on IWF’s years of support for education freedom. We will continue to inform the public about school choice policies and programs. We will also shine the light on education policies that harm students and disempower parents. We will amplify the voices of parents who are seeking education flexibility, freedom and opportunity. And we will encourage parents whose eyes are now open to the power imbalance between parents and school districts to become school choice advocates in their communities and states. 

The Education Freedom Center’s advisory board will help us ensure that we’re partnering effectively and strategically with organizations who are similarly passionate about parental rights and educational freedom. Thank you, Lindsey, Dan, Nicki, Erika and Corey for joining today’s celebration. We also have an incredibly impressive first cohort of Education Freedom Ambassadors, including Northern Virginia mother Xanthe Larsen and Xi Van Fleet, who are here today.

Thank you all for joining us to celebrate the launch of the Education Freedom Center. We look forward to working with each of you in the years to come.