The most rewarding aspect of working in the family empowerment movement, hands down, is the people you meet. One of my all-time favorites is Virginia Walden Ford.
Walden Ford grew up in Little Rock, Ark., during the battle for school integration. Decades later, she led the fight for the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C. Now, her story has been made into a movie released by the Moving Picture Institute.
Commenting on the film Miss Virginia, EdChoice founder and CEO Robert Enlow noted that “In today’s cynical political world, Virginia’s story is a reminder that one person – one motivated mom who knew the system was rigged against her – can change the course of history.”
The District of Columbia public education system that Walden Ford encountered as a parent in the 1990s was entirely rigged against the poor. The well-to-do in Washington, D.C., either paid for private school tuition out of their own pockets or were well-ensconced on islands of privilege in a very high-spending but tragically dysfunctional district. The striving professional class tended to bail out either to Maryland or Virginia.
Washington, D.C., NAEP scores of that era indicate that any learning taking place in public schools was accidental. If you think that statement harsh, consider the fact that a dismal 7 percent of black D.C. fourth-graders scored proficient in reading. If someone had set out to purposely create a school system to advantage the advantaged and keep the poor down, spending an absurd amount of money in the process, the protype was cast in the form of D.C.-area schools circa the end of the 20th century.
Walden Ford led the grassroots fight to provide expanded opportunities for D.C.’s low-income children, ultimately triumphing with passage of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2003. Participants in that program, by the way, demonstrated a 20 percent higher graduation rate despite only receiving a fraction of the per-pupil spending in DCPS.
Imagine what those students could do if they received their fair share of funding and the chance to spend it on tutoring and enrichment programs in addition to – or instead of – private school tuition.
Standing on the shoulders of a giant, the next generation of opportunity warriors should follow Walden Ford’s example and challenge a continually distracted Congress to pay attention to what still is a crisis for poor children in Washington, D.C. A modernized D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program could provide still greater chances for D.C. families to improve their prospects.
You will never meet a more genuine, passionate and down-to-earth advocate than Walden Ford. I’m eager to see the extent to which the filmmakers have done justice to her story.