During the Great Parental Awakening, when the pandemic alerted parents to some of the abysmal shortcomings of the nation’s public schools, Virginia Gentles, director of Independent Women’s Forum’s new Education Freedom Center, found herself facing the same dilemma as countless other American parents: what can we do to ensure union-driven closures of public schools don’t result in permanent learning loss for millions of children—including mine?
Fortunately, Ginny was able to pull her two daughters out of the Arlington County public school system and get them into a small faith-based school. But what about other parents? A longtime advocate of school choice, Ginny knew what was needed: more parental choice in education. The stars aligned and in April, IWF launched the Education Freedom Center (EFC), with Ginny at the helm. IWF President Carrie Lukas said at the time that the Center “will build on the momentum created by parents throughout the last two years who are seeking transparency, leverage, and a voice in their children’s education.”
“The job of the Center is to shine a light on what’s going on in classrooms,” Gentles, who goes by Ginny, says, “because part of education freedom is understanding what kids are being taught and then making choices accordingly. We advocate for school choice and make sure that parents are aware of some of the radical ideologies that are being taught in public schools and in some private schools.”
Like Ginny, IWF is no newcomer to the school choice battle. “IWF’s support of school choice predates my affiliation with IWF,” Ginny explains. “You can go to the IWF website and look back over a decade ago. There are numerous blogs and profiles of Virginia Walden Ford, a pioneer in the education freedom space, and calls for support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is a federally funded school choice program.
“I joined the organization as a visiting fellow and then had to pull back on my role and my contributions because schools closed right after I joined,” Ginny continues. “And I had to stop working and focus on educating my children and I was not alone. There were millions of mothers in the same situation, and so as I found options that were available to my children, as I returned to the education world, IWF was in a place where the organization realized we have to take this support for school choice and turn it into a full commitment to parents and to students, that what happened during COVID with school closures never happens again. And one way to ensure that this never happens again is to expand education freedom.”
Gentles has been in the trenches for a long time. But she believes she is seeing something new happening.
“We’re at a completely new phase of parental involvement, parental awareness, and parental engagement,” she says. “And the organizations that exist now, including the Education Freedom Center and some of the others are helping parents now that their eyes are opened due to school closures, are helping parents understand how to take the next step by staying involved. We are helping parents know how to ask questions, and how to hold their school districts accountable. Every parent is going to have a different capacity for engagement. I’m a single parent. So, I know that it’s really difficult logistically to get to school board meetings and I can’t even imagine for single parents who have shift work, for example, if they have to work in the evenings or overnight, but there are numerous other ways to get involved.
“And I think now that the parents have seen the gross neglect of students and the horrific fallout—not just with learning loss but also the behavioral and emotional and social skill challenges that kids are having now because of school closures, because of a lack of focus on academic instruction in schools today—parents are going to find their way. Again, everybody’s going to have a different capacity and a different way of getting involved, and engaged, and informed. We should never assume just because parents are low-income that they’re not interested or that they can’t be involved. I think that the history of the school choice movement shows us quite the opposite. Historically, school choice programs have prioritized low-income families, and whenever there’s been any sort of legislative threat to those programs, you absolutely will hear from low-income families. They will show up at the state legislature. They’ll show up in Washington D.C. when it’s the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. And they’ll speak up.”
Ginny Gentles was brought up in a family that not only put a high premium on education but that practiced school choice almost before there was such a thing as a school choice movement. Ginny’s parents were federal government employees. Her father was an aeronautical engineer for the U.S. Navy. The family was stationed near the Navy base at Patuxent River, Maryland. The public schools in the area were not good at the time. “My family actually moved to another state in part so that I would receive a better public-school education,” Ginny recalls. In an era long before information was accessible on the internet, Ginny’s mother somehow researched public school systems, concluding which school district in Central Florida would provide a good education for Ginny. Ginny went to school K-12 in Florida’s public school system.
But the story of the education of Ginny Gentles begins even before that. “I think I’m really fortunate to come from a family of women who have attended college since the 1880s, essentially,” says Ginny. “I should look up the exact date as to when women in my mother’s family started going to college, but there are a number of all-women’s colleges in the South, and the women in her family went to those all-women’s colleges, including my mother.” The roster of colleges attended by the distaff side of Ginny’s family, at a time when the education of women was less emphasized, is impressive: Converse College in South Carolina, Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, and Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
When it came time for Ginny to select a college for herself, she was attracted to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, because of its politics and history program and because it offered a semester abroad in a Wake Forest-owned house with professors from the university and from London. It was at Wake Forest that Gentles first became interested in education reform. She subscribed to the newsletter put out by Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform. “I was an early subscriber and I followed her work to learn more about the need for education reform, and the need for school choice,” Ginny once told an interviewer. “I researched it and wrote a paper about it my senior year of college. As soon as I graduated and moved to Washington D.C., I looked for opportunities to be involved. I wanted to ensure that students could have access to a high-quality education regardless of where they lived.”
Gentles has been in the trenches for a long time. But she believes she is seeing something new happening.
Before coming to Washington, however, there was grad school. Ginny went straight from Wake Forest to a graduate program at Syracuse University at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs to obtain a Master of Public Administration. “I did that because I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” Ginny says. “It seems like whenever I interned in Washington D.C., everybody was on the track to be a lawyer. I wanted to get a master’s degree but not a law degree, so I chose M.P.A. And the story is a very typical Washington story. I started on Capitol Hill, and I was fortunate to start working for a member of Congress who was on the Appropriations Committee and specifically on the subcommittee that funds the Department of Education. So, I was able to be involved in a variety of social policy issues, including education.”
After a stint on Capitol Hill, Gentles married a Canadian and moved to Toronto, where she worked in the finance department of Ontario’s Ministry of Education for two years. Gentles was then tapped to run a privately funded scholarship program being launched by the Fraser Institute, a free-market think tank. “So, that was a really fantastic opportunity to start a school choice program from the ground up and it was based on the Children’s Scholarship Fund model that was expanding across the U.S. at the time,” Ginny recalls. The Children’s Scholarship Fund was started by Ted Forstmann and John Walton, whose passion was quality education for low-income kids. The Fraser Institute program Gentles headed was called Children First.
“They trained me up, gave me their database, and we launched a school choice program for low-income families in Ontario,” Ginny recalled in an earlier interview. “That was awesome. It was a wonderful experience, really working directly with families, ensuring that they knew how to research and find a private school that met their needs, and ensuring that they were ready to share their story. Once they enrolled in that school and saw the changes that it made in their students’ lives, they were prepared to speak to legislators in the Ontario government in order to advocate for a publicly funded program in that province.” Ginny has said that she loved being part of laying the groundwork for the program. Nevertheless, she began to pine for something not readily available in Canada: warmer weather. She began to think fondly of Florida.
Education is a family tradition. “I think I’m really fortunate to come from a family of women who have attended college since the 1880s, essentially,” says Ginny.
With visions of living in a milder climate dancing in her head, Ginny fired off an email to then Governor Jeb Bush, whom she had met twice. Was there a job in education in Florida for which she might be suited? “And amazingly, wonderfully, the executive director of the Florida Department of Education school choice office position was open and that was a wonderful fit for me and a really exciting opportunity to work in a state that was paving the way, leading when it came to expanding multiple school choice programs,” Ginny recalls. She took the job and worked in Tallahassee at the end of Bush’s second term. Jeb is not the only Bush brother for whom Ginny has worked. She served as a senior political appointee at the George W. Bush Department of Education. After having her first child almost fourteen years ago, Gentles began serving as a consultant to organizations that advocate for school choice, including the American Federation for Children.
IWF’s Education Freedom Center will promote school choice, transparency (it’s not always easy for parents to wrest something as basic as the curriculum from school administrators), and exposing radical ideologies such as Critical Race Theory or gender ideology, of which many parents were not-so-blissfully unaware before the Zoom classes revealed them. “Parents and students should not be trapped in schools that are determined to not serve them or determined to serve them poorly,” Ginny insists. But why have so many U.S. public schools become so bad?
“Well, I’ve been in this space for a long time,” Ginny replies, “and I probably would have different answers at different stages in my career. The overarching theme, though, has been the fact that our school systems are not centered on children or on education anymore. So much of public education is about being an employment opportunity for adults. It’s a system that serves adults and not kids.
“We saw school closures where the teachers’ union spread fear and very effectively used social media and some really unpleasant scare tactics, and were able to keep schools closed and not educate kids throughout the pandemic for well over a year, a year-and-a-half in some areas,” Ginny continues. “And then when the kids came back, the school districts weren’t taking the learning loss that they’d created seriously and were instead prioritizing cultural issues such as CRT and gender ideology. Where in all of this is the prioritization of educating the individual child? And that is what led to the pushback from parents.”
In a way, what Ginny is talking about is a new wave of parents who now know the truth about American education and are not afraid to demand something better for their children. Who better to help them with information and advocacy than a woman who has dedicated her career to advancing educational freedom, which we bet would make her trailblazing grandmothers proud.