A Lifetime of Fighting for Education for All
Thrust onto the front lines of the desegregation battles of the 1960s as a teenager, Virginia Walden Ford took the lessons she learned early in life and carried them to decades of impact in the U.S. education system.
Virginia Walden Ford has spent her life empowering parents and fighting for educational opportunities for students. Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, she and her twin sister, Harrietta, were among the first 130 students chosen to desegregate Little Rock’s high schools in the mid-1960s.
While she was raising her three children in Washington, D.C., she worried that her own son was falling through the cracks of a system that wasn’t focused on the best interests of children, so she took action and formed D.C. Parents for School Choice.
In 2003, Virginia and her organization of parent advocates succeeded in convincing Congress and President George W. Bush to enact the Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income children, a program that set into motion an overhaul of Washington, D.C.’s educational system. The program provides scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools, while boosting federal funding for traditional public schools and public charter schools. Since its inception, more than 11,000 children have benefited from the program and it boasts over a 90% graduation rate.
Ford talked with Bush Institute Executive Director Holly Kuzmich about her passion for empowering parents, their shared work on education reform during the Bush Administration, and what gives her hope for future generations of students.
First of all, paint the picture of your time as a student in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a very tumultuous time, amidst desegregation. What was your experience like?
I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and always attended segregated schools until the ninth grade, and in 10th grade we were told that we were going to attend Little Rock Central, which 10 years prior to that, had been the focus of the world because of the Little Rock Nine. People don’t remember that schools didn’t immediately desegregate. Black people didn’t immediately run to White schools. It took time. And I remember in the mid-’60s, when I was getting ready to go to high school, my parents talking about the fact that schools weren’t desegregating fast enough. I never thought it was going to have anything to do with me, I just listened to the conversation.
And shortly after that, my dad said, “You and Harrietta,” my twin sister, “are going to Central.” And I went, “Oh no, not me. I’m going to the Black high school.” But, I reluctantly went to Central. On the first day, when Daddy took us to school, I remember saying, “I don’t want to go here.” I had a family member who was one of the Little Rock Nine, and I remember what all she went through. I was only six then, but I remembered it. It was really something that affected me, watching them cry and going to school and all the terrible things that happened as a result of that.
That morning, my dad said to me — and this is been a part of my thought process in my life since that moment — he said, “You have a responsibility to attend Central and the reason you have a responsibility is because you have younger sisters. And how would the world look at you if you refused to go? You’re setting the way for younger people. For younger African American, Black people to be able to attend those schools.” And even at 14 years old, I took that pretty seriously because I had two little sisters, and I didn’t want them to not have the chance to go to a school that was amazing.
They had things at Central High School that we never dreamed. They had a huge library, and I liked to read, so that was the first thing that struck me. And the science department, everyone in biology got a microscope. I remember the books were published in 1966, where, previously, we had had books that were 10 years behind, so teachers were always trying to catch us up with the dates.
They had things at Central High School that we never dreamed. They had a huge library, and I liked to read, so that was the first thing that struck me. And the science department, everyone in biology got a microscope.
Going there probably set the tone for my life. We weren’t always treated well. I mean, there were people that really did not want us there, but we took it in stride. We looked at the fact that we had all of these things that were available to us now, which had to be important to us, because it would determine where we went in the future, and we made the best of it.
Let’s fast-forward a bit and talk about your time in D.C. and how you really became an advocate there. Give us a little bit of the background on your son, William, and what led you to look for more options for him when he was in school.
I have three kids. Two of my older kids are really academically driven, and school seemed to be a lot better for them. They’re six years apart. So, I never dreamed that my third child, my youngest, William, would have any issues in school. But once he started middle school was when I first saw the discrepancies between what my friends’ children in other schools were getting and what he was getting. He was suspended every other day. Everybody gave up on him. And it was that way all the way to the time he went to high school, and then it got progressively worse.
But the schools had also gotten worse. The particular school he was assigned to had issues anyway. There was a lot of gang activity and drug activity around the school, which was certainly impacting the kids. We lived in a neighborhood that was run by a gang and drug dealers. And so, I was overwhelmed with keeping him out of those kinds of environments.
William was easily led, and he was trying to make friends and he was trying to get people to like him. But, the thing that I think impacted him the most was in ninth grade, a young boy in our neighborhood got beat up badly because they kept saying, “You think you’re smart.” The boy was beat up and hospitalized, and after that happened, I think William decided that the only thing to keep him safe was to align himself with kids that were getting in trouble. He was really pulled toward those kids to keep him safe.
He and I had talked about it over the years, and he just felt like they would protect him and he wouldn’t get beat up if he didn’t act smart. That was just unacceptable to me. I knew he had a lot that he was dealing with in school. I knew that there had to be something we could do to help him, but there were no options available to us. The only thing I could do was send him to traditional public school because I didn’t have the money to send him anywhere else.
One day he came home, and he had clearly been involved in something, because he was being really secretive, and he had a newspaper that had drugs in it. The drug dealers were having these 13- to 14 year-olds deliver drugs for them. That was when I decided we cannot do this. I am not going to put my child in that position where he has to determine whether he’s going to be a good kid or if he was going to be a drug dealer.
A neighbor offered to help me to get him into Bishop Carroll [a Catholic high school] in Washington, D.C., but most of the money would have to be paid by me. I remember going into that office and being told how much it was, and my stomach just dropped. I was already struggling to just pay for us to survive. I was already working a second job, and then I got a third job at night to try to pay this tuition. And I really tried, but it was hard. At some point I just couldn’t do it. It was too much money and I was not home with the kids, and I was tired and frustrated. At some point I had to take him out of that school, and that broke my heart.
And that’s when I realized that this wasn’t fair, that the only people who didn’t have any place to go or send their children to were poor people. And I worked full time, but I didn’t make a lot of money. Mothers like me, or parents like me, and really poor people had no options. They just had to go where they were sent, whether or not it was benefiting the child or not. So, that’s when I started talking to parents around my community and everybody was feeling the same way. I couldn’t send my child back to that school one more year [or] he was going to get killed or go to jail. And we were watching kids get killed and we were watching kids go to jail at 14-15 years old. It got real scary for us. It got really frightening.
And that’s when I realized that during that time that this wasn’t fair, that the only people who didn’t have any place to go or send their children to were poor people. … Really poor people had no options. They just had to go where they were sent, whether or not it was benefiting the child or not.
That’s when I decided that I was going to do something about it, which was really unusual for me because I was pretty shy, but the parents around me, my neighbors, they were feeling really positive, and they were counting on me to do something. So, I ended up going to a lot of different meetings — school meetings with the principals, school board meetings, anything where they were going to talk about education, I would show up. And I was dismissed. They were like, “Yeah, we hear what you’re saying but we’re not going to do anything about it.”
Then, there were a couple of people on Capitol Hill, and they were trying to get a scholarship program for D.C. kids. I was actually working at a faith-based camp, and they called and asked if somebody from education reform could come in and talk to parents. Well, where I was working, parents were not really involved. It was a lot of kids whose parents were incarcerated or were on the street. The lady who came said, “Well, you have a really good story,” and she invited me to testify before [Congressman] Dick Armey’s committee. And that was kind of the start to somebody to listening to me.
I remember Mr. Armey, he kind of looked at me and I could tell by his face that he understood. So, that was kind of the beginning, and we fought really hard. We began to organize and talk to parents in the community and go to their homes.
Somebody called, after President Bush was elected, and said, “If you really want to fight for D.C. kids, this is the President that will be there.” And that’s when we really started fighting. [Congressman] Jeff Flake was the first person who got us up there. He was proposing a $2,500 scholarship program for 2,500 D.C. kids. And we took a lot of parents up there to support it. And then others got involved, Speaker [John] Boehner, he and President Bush were our champions for that particular legislation.
We began working with them, and [Congressman]Tom Davis and others in the Senate, including Senator [Joe] Lieberman and Senator [Susan] Collins and Senator [Bill] Frist. And it became a reality, but it took years and years. I think by President Bush’s second term, we were beginning to get more support.
You talked about when you first showed up at school board meetings, how everyone would dismiss you and until you went to the Hill and were asked to testify, that’s when you felt like people finally started listening. Talk a little bit about parents as advocates, generally, and expand on that theme of the receptivity of your voices as part of it.
When we did go to school board meetings and stuff, one or two of us would speak, like I said, they were kind of saying to us, “Yeah, yeah. You’re a troubling or challenging or difficult parent.” And that’s how we felt for a while. And then, I think later on, we began to realize that our voices needed to be heard. We’re the only ones who can tell stories about how our children are doing in school. So, going to those meetings, even though it was really frustrating, it built a group of parents who were, I don’t want to say angry, but frustrated enough to want to do more. We would leave those meetings and go, “These are our kids. They can’t just push us out the door and not respond to us.” But that’s how it felt.
So, what I’ve learned over 20 years of fighting for children and parents is that a parent’s voice is incredibly powerful. And that if you can gather together people who are willing to talk about their plight in life, then you can make changes. But that wasn’t easy to do. Initially, parents said, “We’ve tried to say something before, but nothing ever happened. I don’t want to go through that.” And then of course we’d have hearings where we’d have losses or people would tell us we were not equipped to fight for our children and we didn’t have the information or the knowledge, or the whatever. And they’d tell us we were brainwashed or told what to say. And I always said, “You need to talk to my parents. Nobody told me what to say, not even them.”
So, what I’ve learned over 20 years of fighting for children and parents is that a parent’s voice is incredibly powerful. And that if you can gather together people who are willing to talk about their plight in life, then you can make changes.
We taught parents how to tell their story in a short paragraph. “My son went to a bad school, he got a scholarship that changed his life, and now he has a future,” kind of way. It was hard. When I think back about the nights that I cried about this or that, I didn’t sleep about that, I worried about whether the parents were going to show up at a rally, or a meeting, or a hearing, or a whatever. I often am surprised at how well we did do because it was not easy, because most parents during that time had been told that they didn’t have any right to say anything about their children’s education.
Basically they were told, and I was, too, that we should be glad that there were teachers and we should stay out of something that was not our affair. And I thought, “But that’s my child.” And that’s what I would tell the parents, “You have every right to fight for your child to have a quality education.” I think after a period of time, parents started really believing that, not just in D.C., but around the nation.
We started believing that our voices had some power. I still believe that, and I still say to parents when I talk to them, “Your voice has power. Just like every other American, you have a right to talk to your legislators about what you want for your child.”
I still say to parents when I talk to them, “Your voice has power. Just like every other American, you have a right to talk to your legislators about what you want for your child.”
You know this better than anybody — School Choice is a politically divisive issue, but parents don’t view it as politically divisive. They view it as personal. So, what do you think is behind that difference between what happens in policymaking and the views and frustrations that parents have on this issue?
When we were on Capitol Hill walking those marble floors, hurting our legs, tired, we didn’t care what party and we didn’t care about the politics. We cared about our children. When you really sit down with people, I don’t care where they’re from or what party they belong to, talk to them about children and you see a different response. We recognized that, so we began to use that to get people to listen. We changed a lot of minds because, to us, it wasn’t politics.
I tell parents, “You stay focused on what you want for your child. Don’t lose focus by the voices you hear on either side of your head. You stay focused on the children and we will win.” The fact of the matter is the only reason that there’s a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is because parents were courageous enough to stand up and say to people they care about kids.
We had one Democrat vote for our program at one point. I went to him and said, “I know this is hard for you to do. We just want to thank you,” and he said, because he went against his party and everybody else, he said, “Sometimes you just have to do what’s right.” And to this day, I have a lot of respect for that person. And we had many people who said the same after that. There were so many people who stood up for the kids.
Twenty years ago when we were fighting for No Child Left Behind, and obviously several years after that, fighting for D.C. School Choice, you did so much to organize parents. How do you think it looks today? Is it better for parents? Is it worse? Is it just the same? Have we made any progress in really doing a better job of working with parents and giving parents voice in education?
I think we have. I think parents realize now they have opportunity to speak out. I think it takes people to go and tell them that. I think for those few years after No Child Left Behind and D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program were implemented, parents were proud of the fact that they had a say.
We saw more School Choice programs being enacted around the country. I know more kids that were educated through School Choice programs around the nation who are doing incredibly well in the workforce.
We needed to let people know that fighting for their children was not a bad thing. We taught them how to fight, and so I think that it has changed. It had gotten better. I was really pleased with what I saw around the country. And now with the pandemic, we more than ever need School Choice. Parents need to know as schools reopen around the nation, that there are other options.
There are parents that are going to be really fearful of sending their kids back to school. I polled 30 parents last week about their feelings about their kids going back to brick and mortar schools and everyone said, “I want the kids to go back to school but I want them to be safe. I want them to go back to school because the best learning is done when kids interact.” It’s a hard decision, but unlike 20 years ago, parents can actually think about it, call somebody, give them their opinion. We didn’t know that then.
I think that we learned to use our voices, and I don’t think that will stop no matter what happens. I think parents learned. You have to continue to step up. You have to make sure the programs in the states continue. You have to make sure that we don’t lose these programs, and we can continue to provide options for our kids. That’s the message. We need to have options for all children, no matter what.