Friday, May 4, 2001

“I was scared,” Virginia Walden told me the other day about her teen-age son. “I was really very scared.”
She was scared because her son, William, was in that push-me/pull-me stage of life doing well when he attended school, but acting out, skipping class and getting suspended because of peer pressure. Then, before Virginia knew it, one of her worst nightmares was staring her smack in the face. The police were holding her son.
As things turned out, though, that same dreadful incident placed Virginia and William in the right spot at the right time which means this story about a single mom raising three children has one of the happiest of endings.
It so happens that her sons run-in with the law led her to a complete stranger who handed her and her son two rays of hope: One was an application and the other was a voucher that would cover full tuition to a Catholic school. Today, after four years at Archbishop Carroll High and accolades as a track star, Virginias son, William, is in an apprenticeship program as an electrician.
Mom, meanwhile, is executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice. “Things happened so quickly,” says Virginia, whose full name is Virginia Walden Ford. “I decided to find a way to help other mothers have a happy ending. It became a passion.”
To be sure, Virginia stands strong among a growing number of parents, particularly black mothers, who are desperate to find options for their children child care and extracurricular help as well as educational. The common thread is personal finances dictate whether there are indeed any options at all. While child-care centers offer sliding-scale fees for low-income parents, and churches and other organizations offer scholarships and/or free performing and visual arts programs, and neighborhood recreation centers offer all manner of sports options, most school districts provide few, if any, options.
Magnet programs and charter schools as well as specialty schools, such as Duke Ellington and Benjamin Banneker, two high school that honor their namesakes with exceptional arts and math and science offerings, respectively, are certainly popular but can handle only a couple hundred children a piece. Tens of thousands of others are at the mercy of the status quo, or so-called traditional schools and therein lies the rub, because, when it comes to public education, one size hardly fits all.
Public school systems want us to wait until they reform themselves, at the expense of our children. The Teddy Kennedys on Capitol Hill want us to wait until three, five, even 10 years down the road before parental choice kicks in. As things stand now, the right and the left cant even agree on a succinct definition for a poorly performing school. Somebody, please, snatch the silver spoons from their mouths.
“Most of the reform I see,” Virginia said, “is for K-5.” They dont seem to mind throwing away the other children. Moreover, she hit the proverbial left-leaning nail on its head. “The opposition is made up of people who have choices. When my kids were in public schools and they came home with the PTA form, they felt threatened. ‘Mommy, please pay the money for the PTA or my teacher will be mad with me. “
The irony, then, lies with the public school teachers and elected officials who prefer to plop their own children in private or parochial schools. Because it is no coincidence that teachers unions, the PTA, school boards and politicians everywhere push for raises every two or three years while test scores prove year after year the huge disconnect between teaching and learning.
Now heed the following words, dear readers, because they, too, speak volumes: “Our leadership,” Virginia said, “is not speaking out on our behalf.” Who, do you suppose, she means by our?
In Washington, our school board president, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, opposes choice. Most of our lawmakers oppose choice. The Democrats number one man on the Senate education panel opposes school choice. The nations largest teacher lobby, the National Education Association, opposes choice. And the one organization parents have long depended on for local school guidance, the PTA, opposes choice. The National Urban League and the NAACP, two organizations long considered indispensible to black America, oppose choice.
Virginia speaks at them often, trying to, ahem, educate them. She spoke to the president as well, after personally writing to him not long after he took office. He granted her a meeting quite recently. But she was not alone. Virginia carted a couple of dozen other mothers and children with her. They all got to have a heart to heart with George W. Bush.
And thats the thing about Virginia and those other moms. While they are armed with anecdotes and statistics, and reports and studies by the Childrens Scholarship Fund, Children First America and think tanks, they speak with their own voices, about their own children and have made school choice their own personal crusade. The trick now is to get others to hear what they have to say.

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