- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

School choice advocates may have won a battle two years ago, but Virginia Walden Ford wants them to know the fight is not over.

Mrs. Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, helped lead the fight for federal legislation providing private-school vouchers. The pilot program enacted in 2004 allowed for scholarships of up to $7,500 for low-income children in the District.

“[The voucher program] empowers parents to select the school they feel best meets the needs of their kids,” Mrs. Ford said.

To be eligible for a scholarship, a student must come from a household whose annual income is below $35,798 for a family of four, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty line, according to the Washington Scholarship Fund.

The fund announced last week that 1,802 students are using scholarships at 58 of the District’s private schools during the 2006-07 school year.

The program must be reauthorized in 2008, and Mrs. Ford is prepared for a challenge.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I’m arming myself now.”

She is not certain how the next D.C. mayor or Congress will stand on school choice, but realizes the program faces strong opposition from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and teachers unions.

Georgetown University and Westat Corp. are evaluating the program on behalf of the U.S. Education Department. The Washington Scholarship Fund said researchers will compare the academic performance of scholarship students with that of more than 900 eligible students who applied for but did not receive a scholarship.

Speaking at a luncheon of the Conservative Women’s Network at the Heritage Foundation, Mrs. Ford called for people to join the D.C. Parents for School Choice movement. “Legislators can’t ignore numbers,” she said.

She said the specter of past injustices is one of the biggest obstacles to school choice, noting that black Democrats and the NAACP oppose the program partially because they had to fight so hard for integration.

Mrs. Ford knows the civil rights struggle well. In 1965, she continued the efforts of the Little Rock Nine to desegregate Central High School in Arkansas. Her parents both taught public school, and her father was the first black assistant superintendent of the Little Rock School District.

Mrs. Ford asks opponents of school choice to see the deteriorating public education system firsthand.

“This is not what we fought for,” Mrs. Ford said. “We didn’t fight to get into buildings. We fought to get a better education.”

She thinks Congress would support school choice if members visited communities affected by poor public education systems.

“There’s no way you can sit up and talk to the parents that we work with and not be moved,” she said.

She recalled meeting a man, unkempt and showing signs of substance abuse, who was determined to get his son into a better school. “I don’t want him to be me in 40 years,” the father said.

A year later, Mrs. Ford did not recognize the man. “After his son got the scholarship, he realized he needed to change his life,” she said. He joined a substance-abuse program, was working toward a general equivalency diploma and had enrolled in an employment program, all because he did not want to embarrass his son.

“These programs not only serve the children, but it changes the dynamics of the family,” she said. “It saves lives.”

Mrs. Ford said many who have joined her organization are teachers.

“A lot of teachers support choice. They just can’t say it out loud,” she said.

She doubts teachers unions will ever support school choice.

Michelle Easton, president of Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, said school choice pressures public schools to improve or risk losing students.

Mrs. Ford, however, said she has not seen progress because money also is given to public and charter schools under the federal voucher law.

Mrs. Ford stressed that students have the right to attend a school that meets their needs. Middle- and upper-class families always have had the option to move to better school districts or pay private-school tuition, but now low-income families also can have that choice for their children, she said.

“The Elusive ‘Sensible’ Step in Choice Reform,” written for Edspresso.com by Lil Tuttle, education director at the Luce policy institute, suggests the school-choice movement has stalled in many states because the middle class takes note of the taxpayer money proposed and wonders, “What’s in it for me?”

Mrs. Tuttle called for universal models that allow all students to take their share of education funding to the public or private school of their choice, ensuring competition. She proposes that states base funding on the number of students in a school rather than the tax base.

Mrs. Ford thinks universal school choice is “a very, very long way off.”

“Right now, my focus is low-income families because those are the families that never get served,” she said. “If we build a better school environment, all children will ultimately be served.”

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