Although Virginia Walden Ford always watched nervously from her car until she saw that William, her problem son, actually had entered the school building before driving off to work, the dreaded call came anyway: William had not shown up for school.
William, as soon as he was sure his mother could no longer observe him, routinely turned in his tracks and took off for the mean streets of Washington, D.C., where drug dealers courted boys with expensive gifts. “William was one of those kids God gives you so you’ll find out if you really have what it takes to be a parent,” Walden Ford tells IWF.
It was dealing with William’s problems that showed that Walden Ford also had what it took to become one of the most effective leaders of the school choice movement. In 1998 she founded D.C. Parents for School Choice, Inc., and was a founding member of The Black Alliance for Educational Option, Inc.
Without Walden Ford, there just might not be the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives scholarships for K-12 students from low-income families to attend the private or parochial school. She and her army of mothers were an essential part of the campaign to get the Opportunity Scholarships signed into law. When the Obama administration threatened the program by choking off its funding, Walden Ford again mobilized her army of parents and helped save the program that allows parents to take their kids out of failing public schools. She is author of the self-published memoir, Voices, Choices, and Second Chances, which is aimed at providing inspiration and direction for other parents who want to make a difference in their children’s educational choices.
You’ll soon be able to see Walden Ford’s story in a movie, “Miss Virginia,” in which Virginia is portrayed by Uzo Aduba, Emmy winning actress for her role as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in the Netflix Original series “Orange Is the New Black.” Matthew Modine plays Harvard-educated Congressman Clifford Williams. The movie is being released by the Moving Picture Institute, which specializes in films based on “stories that wrestle with the very ideals that America was founded on such as free expression, human rights, and resistance to tyranny.”
“William was one of those kids God gives you so you’ll find out if you really have what it takes to be a parent,” Virginia Walden Ford tells IWF. It was dealing with William’s problems that showed that Walden Ford also had what it took to become one of the most effective leaders of the school choice movement. Without her, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program just might not exist.
Such success and acclaim might have looked highly unlikely back in 1996, when Virginia was a single parent, agonizing over William, her youngest child. School officials, she says, sometimes dismiss kids like William as not very smart. “I knew that wasn’t the case with William,” she says. But he was undeniably headed in the wrong direction. “By the time he was 11, things had gotten really bad,” Walden Ford recalls. “Right up the street from us was a very crime-ridden area. And William was just attracted to that, it seemed. He couldn’t stay away from that area, and I was constantly having to go get him. The drug dealers would give kids expensive gifts in return delivering drugs wrapped in a newspaper.”
When William was suspended from school once again, Virginia sat on the front porch, crying and a neighbor, Robert Lewis, a man who had done well but nevertheless returned to live in the neighborhood, was passing by. Lewis stopped and asked her if she was all right. “And I said, I’m not,” she recalls. “I’m really worried about William.” Lewis knew William, and his potential. “I’d like to help him,” Lewis said. The help was in the form of a scholarship to a private school.
Virginia didn’t let false pride stand in the way. She jumped at the life-changing offer. William enrolled in Archbishop Carroll High School (also Bob Lewis’s alma mater), nearby in the Brookland-Catholic University neighborhood. “William immediately relaxed,” Walden Ford recalls. “I had never seen him like that. It was something about how he walked into the school. They didn’t have metal detectors. The kids looked engaged and people were smiling and he just relaxed, and immediately I saw something change in him. Just at that moment.”
Like the yet to come Opportunity Scholarships, Lewis’ scholarship didn’t cover the entire cost of the school. Walden Ford would have to pay half. Her solution: a second job. Virginia, whose field is finance and accounting, already worked for Sister Cities, which promoted relationships between cities in different countries. To pay for William’s education, she landed a second job doing accounting for a radio music station called Believe in a Dream Records. She got home from her first job around 7 pm. She fed her children and went to BID to work from 9 to midnight.
It must have taken courage for Mr. Fowler to encourage Virginia and Harrietta to go to Central. When Fowler became assistant superintendent for personnel for the Little Rock School District, Virginia recalls that the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in their yard.
“It was hard,” Virginia says. “I don’t know how I did it. But I’d look at the child and I would look at all of my kids and I knew this was just something I had to do. I was blessed because my parents taught us to be hard workers and to not fall under the weight of life’s hard things. We learned not to accept defeat and not to make defeat a part of us.” Walden Ford’s parents had also given her something else: a firm belief in the power of education. In a way, her school choice fight has its roots not only in Washington but in the racially troubled Little Rock, Arkansas, where Virginia and her beloved identical twin sister, Harrietta, grew up.
Their father was William Harry Fowler, the first black assistant superintendent in the Little Rock School District. “My dad has the best story in the world,” Virginia says, with obvious affection. “My dad was the child of a train attendant and lady who cleaned houses. Neither of whom had more than a third-grade education, but they were smart and they had a son who was smart, I mean, brilliant. He excelled in everything he did. But this was Marion, North Carolina. And the schools in Marion, North Carolina, for black kids, only went to the eighth grade.”
The Fowlers had heard of the Stillman Institute in Alabama. The Institute, which became Stillman College, a historically black college, had a junior and senior high school. “My grandparents put their money together and sent their 13-year-old all alone to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and he talked Stillman Institute into letting him be the janitor and go to high school. He worked his way through Stillman. He went to the junior college. Then he went into the military. He was in the military stationed in Arkansas, when he decided to attend Philander Smith where he met my mom.” Philander Smith College is a historically black college in Little Rock.
Virginia’s mother, Marion Virginia Johnson Fowler, was the daughter of a bricklayer and a seamstress who sewed for many wealthy people in Little Rock. She graduated from Philander Smith at the age of sixteen and became a public-school teacher. Desegregation came to Little Rock public schools in 1957, when nine black children known as the Little Rock Nine were ushered into Central High by members of the Arkansas National Guard, amid spitting, as a mob protested.
In the mid-sixties, the process of integration was far from complete and Virginia and Harrietta were part of a second wave of black kids going to predominantly white schools. They went to Central in the tenth grade. There were several thousand students, of whom fewer than two hundred were black. Virginia did not want to go to Central.
Dropping her off the first day, her father gave her a pep talk: “My dad said ‘You have a responsibility to go to Central, and to do well because you have younger siblings. And, if you don’t do well, you won’t help change the way they look at us.’ I was 14 and I felt I had to do it for my siblings. And so, I went to Central. I got called the N-word every day. Teachers were not very nice to us. But you know what? I did get a good education.” Afterwards, however, she opted for an all-black college, Hampton University, in Hampton, Virginia. Virginia married her college sweetheart, a marriage that ended in divorce.
You’ll soon be able to see Walden Ford’s story in a movie, “Miss Virginia,” in which Virginia is portrayed by Uzo Aduba, Emmy winning actress for her role as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in the Netflix Original series “Orange Is the New Black.”
It must have taken courage for Mr. Fowler to encourage his daughters to go to Central. When Fowler became assistant superintendent for personnel for the Little Rock School District, Virginia recalls that the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in their yard. “I was crying, I was terrified,” Virginia says. “Somebody threw a rock through the window and nearly hit my six-month-old sister.” Finally, Mr. Fowler went outside with a rifle, but, fortunately, the Klansmen had left. William Harry Fowler belonged to the NAACP, and it has been a disappointment to Virginia that the organization opposes school choice.
Sounds embittering, doesn’t it?
“I was bitter for a while,” she admits. “But I want you to understand why I am not bitter now. Our parents were Christians and they would not permit us to hate people. They said there were good and bad in every race. I went back to my fiftieth reunion at Central. I realized during the banquet that I needed to let go of any lingering bitterness. And people had changed. Whatever was going on when I was in high school had changed and with it my classmates had changed, too.”
Fired up by her success in helping William, Virginia became a neighborhood activist for the cause of school choice, volunteering with the Center for Education Reform and the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. She wanted other parents to know that something could be done—and that, regardless of their income or zip code, they should be empowered to have more say in the education of their children.
Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, a leading education reform organization, heard about the mother activist and gave her a call. The meeting Allen asked Walden Ford to arrange with neighborhood mothers was a rare Walden Ford flop—nobody showed up for this new idea of parental choice. But Walden Ford and a representative from CER, got to talking. “You have a story,” the CER official told Virginia. “Would you be willing to testify before Congress?”
Virginia agreed to testify before the Education Committee, chaired by d Armey. “Dick Armey liked me,” she recalls. “He thought I told the story well. So, he called and asked me to come talk to other committees and that was that was the beginning of getting involved.” President Bill Clinton vetoed Armey’s school voucher bill in 1998. Virginia founded D.C. Parents for School Choice that year. Among her funders were school choice advocate and now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Walton Family Foundation, and school choice pioneer, the late Patrick Rooney. When constitutionality of the voucher program for low-income children in Cleveland, Ohio was challenged, Virginia rallied 500 parents to offer support for vouchers by standing on the steps of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the vouchers were constitutional. It was a satisfying win for Virginia and her band of dedicated parents.
In 2003, when then-Congressman Jeff Flake introduced legislation to grant vouchers to low-income D.C. students, he enlisted Virginia and others who belonged to her community movement for greater school choice to help him. Virginia and her allies were able to turn out large numbers of parents in support of Flake’s bill.
For some of Virginia’s “amazing mothers” this kind of activism was a new thing. “Many were poor, on public assistance,” she explains. “Their relationship with the government was one of dependency. The welfare system is awful because it teaches dependency. So these people believed if they didn’t go by the rules, perhaps if you question school authorities, they could be cut off—that’s what they believed.”
For some of Virginia’s “amazing mothers” this kind of activism was a new thing. “Many were poor, on public assistance,” she explains. “Their relationship with the government was one of dependency. The welfare system is awful because it teaches dependency. So these people believed if they didn’t go by the rules, perhaps if you question school authorities, they could be cut off—that’s what they believed. The schools were unresponsive to their needs. Parents didn’t feel welcome at their kids’ schools. But they were amazing [in supporting vouchers]. They turned into incredible advocates once they understood that they could be. And, our saying was ‘If you don’t stick up for your children, you else will? “
Opposition to the voucher bill was intense. Teacher unions waged a well-funded campaign against it. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was resolutely opposed. There was some important local support:D.C. City Council Education Chair Kevin Chavour, then-Mayor Anthony Williams threw his support at the bill, and then president of the D. C. Board of Education, Peggy Cafritz wrote an oped for the Washington Post noting that one in three D.C. residents was functionally illiterate and arguing that there was a place for private education. The voucher bill passed in 2004. President George W. Bush signed it into law.
Although welcomed by low-income parents who wanted choices for their children, the voucher program was targeted for extinction by the Obama administration. D.C. Parents for School Choice put out a strongly-worded statement charging President Obama with denying low-income kids the choices his own daughters had enjoyed (they were enrolled in the private Sidwell Friends School) and putting the interests of well-funded, anti-voucher groups over those of kids. “How can President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan oppose a program that has overwhelmingly benefited low-income, largely African American families in the District of Columbia?” Walden Ford asked in the statement.
In 2015 then-Speaker John Boehner’s SOAR bill reauthorized the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. Virginia now lives mostly in Little Rock with her sister Harrietta, but she still travels the country to promote school choice. A Marine veteran, William now works for UPS and just bought his first house in the D.C. area.
Throughout her career there was one constant motivation: “I love kids and I love it when they have an opportunity to do better in their lives,” she says. She believes that the school choice is slightly stalled. The solution? Re-inspiring parents. “There are parent activists today, but I think that we were warriors. It’s different. We need more parents who are school choice warriors today.”
Let’s hope that as more people learn of Virginia Walden Ford’s story and the effect she has had, they are inspired to follow in her steps and add to her already considerable legacy.