WASHINGTON-The kids in low-income D.C. neighborhoods called her Grandma Virginia, and their parents gave her the respect of calling her Miss Virginia. For years Virginia Walden Ford, 60, had a refrigerator packed with food in case any of the kids came by her modest home-and when you met her, she'd find out anything you might need so she could check if she had it. No air conditioner at your house? Take this one.
Walden Ford was first and foremost a mother, not just to her own three children but also to the children (and their parents) who received D.C. Opportunity Scholarships. Recently she moved away from Washington after 34 years and returned to her native Little Rock, Ark., where she cares for her 89-year-old mother and lives with her twin sister Harrietta Fowler. Walden Ford's story of fighting against both racism and the intransigence of liberal politicians shows how the battle for black progress has changed over the decades.
Let's take the recent fight first. Although her own children are grown, Walden Ford has fought for federally funded scholarships for low-income children in D.C. for the last 15 years. The program took off in 2004, then shut down in 2009, but is now back in place with applications outpacing available scholarships, even though administrators only had a few months to get out word of the scholarships. This past fall 745 new students enrolled in the program after Congress reopened it, bringing the total enrollment from kindergarten to 12th grade to 1,615.
For Walden Ford, it's been a long, wearying fight against local African-American politicians, the first black president, and Democrats in Congress-a fight that perhaps only a single African-American mom like Walden Ford had the grit to handle. "The people we were fighting the most looked like us. That was tougher than anything," Walden Ford recalled as she poured a glass of juice for a guest at her house. "Not having African-American officials who supported this program was painful."
Now, the older battles: Walden Ford's family experience taught her about persistence in overcoming obstacles. Her grandmother was born into slavery, but both of her parents found ways to obtain college educations, and college is where they met. Walden Ford's father, William Harry Fowler, worked his way through school as a janitor, and eventually earned a master's degree. In 1967, when Walden Ford was 15, her dad gained appointment as the first African-American assistant superintendent of public schools in Arkansas. Her mother, Marion Virginia Fowler, was one of the first African-American teachers to teach at white elementary schools in the state.
One night, soon after Walden Ford's father started his job as assistant superintendent, the family awoke when a rock came crashing through a bedroom window, landing in the crib where Walden Ford's baby sister Renee usually slept: The baby was in bed with her parents that night. The family, rushing to see who had thrown the rock, saw a burning cross in the front yard. "I remember being so afraid that something was going to happen to my father," Walden Ford said.
At that time she was one of 130 African-Americans who had recently integrated a 900-person class at Central High in Little Rock, Ark. School clubs shut down when black students tried to join. Black and white students had separate proms. "I don't remember anything ever being happy in high school," Walden Ford said. She begged her father day after day to let her go back to the black high school. It was in her neighborhood. Her black teachers were neighbors who knew her parents personally. She had excelled at the black schools. But her father insisted that she stay at Central: Heroes had fought and sometimes died for her to have the opportunity to attend.
Walden Ford graduated, went on to get her college degree from Hampton University, and married a man with whom she had three children-but then, after a move to Washington, came divorce. As she worked two jobs at times to support the young family, one woman in her southeast D.C. neighborhood cared for the children of single moms for "next to nothing," Walden Ford remembered. Another neighbor picked up the children from school: "Everybody just looked out for each other."
Her oldest son, Michael, got straight A's and thrived, even though kids picked on him for wearing slacks and ties to school every day. Her youngest son, William, struggled much more. When he was in middle school, an honor roll student in the neighborhood received an almost-fatal beating, with the kids who beat him yelling that he thought he was so smart he was going to go to college. Walden Ford saw a change in her son after that beating: "I think it scared him. ... He decided that if he didn't act real smart ... that would somehow protect him."
William made bad friends and would run away for days at a time, with Walden Ford repeatedly filing missing person reports. He fell far behind in school and drug dealers courted him: "It was just a matter of time before I lost him." When William was 13 and playing basketball with a friend and the friend's older brother, a high-school senior about to graduate, the brother argued with another boy on the court. The boy went home, brought back a gun, and shot the older brother four times, killing him in front of William and his friend.
"William never played basketball again. He ran track in high school," Walden Ford said. "That's why we take this so seriously. We're losing kids. ... We need to have them in environments that teach them something else." When one of Walden Ford's neighbors offered to pay for William to attend a private school, William enrolled in Archbishop Carroll High School, a Catholic school near his home. He quit skipping classes. He stayed out of fights. When Walden Ford asked him what had changed, as they were walking home from a parent-teacher conference, he said he felt cared for-and safe.
After two years, William transferred to a charter school and graduated as the valedictorian of his class. He attended community college for a year, then enlisted in the military and went to Iraq. Now, at 28, he works for a real estate company in Washington, but one of his childhood friends is in and out of jail, one is homeless, and another is a drug addict who can't remember his own name-though he knew enough to knock on Walden Ford's door before she moved to Arkansas. "It's the saddest thing I ever saw in my life," she said. "Those are the kids I fought for."
A Republican Congress passed the first D.C. scholarship program in 1998, but President Clinton vetoed it, igniting the wrath of D.C. parents. Walden Ford, energized by William's experience receiving a scholarship, started the organization D.C. Parents for School Choice that year. She became the parents' voice in the debate: "I had wanted for years to repay a community that took care of me and mine." Her organization launched television ads in the states of opposing Democrats, accusing them of blocking the progress of poor, African-American children in Washington.
Democrats argued that the program siphoned money away from public schools, but the D.C. program strategically included additional funding for both public and charter schools as long as vouchers were in place. In 2003 Republicans tried again and passed the scholarship program by one vote. Democrats filibustered in the Senate, so Republicans rolled the program into the omnibus spending bill in 2004. It passed, and President George W. Bush signed it into law.
Happy ending? Not quite. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education, backed by President Barack Obama, announced it was closing the program to new students, despite a newly released study (by the Department of Education) that showed voucher students improving their reading skills in the first three years of the program. The study's lead researcher, Patrick Wolf, said the program showed the "largest achievement" of any federal education experiment that has undergone similar studies.
Congress promised the 1,300 students remaining in the program that they could continue receiving scholarships until they graduated, but they would be the last voucher recipients. Parents doubted the Democratic Congress would continue funding the program for another 13 years, until the last student graduated, and city leaders steadfastly refused to use local funds to continue the program. "Politically, it's a dead issue," Rep. Buck McKeon, then the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, told me at the time. "I'm a realist."
D.C. parents disagreed with such realism. The program was massively popular among them, and polls consistently showed a strong majority of D.C. residents supporting the program-and not just because of the academic opportunity. District parents worry about their children's physical safety: In 2007, 11 percent of D.C. public high-school students said they had been threatened or injured by a weapon at school in the previous school year, according to the Department of Education.
Virginia Walden Ford was not alone in refusing to give up. Six years ago Joe Kelley applied for D.C. vouchers for all four of his school-age children-and they all received them. He contrasts the quiet atmosphere of the private school his children attend with the crime and fights of public schools. He asked lawmakers he met if they had visited any of the schools to see how the voucher program was working: None of them had.
When some members of Congress tried to revive the program in 2010, Latasha Bennett, the single African-American mom of a voucher student, testified before congressional committees and "felt the empowerment inside of me as if it was the civil-rights movement. ... Had we not spoke up, this thing would have been washed under the bridge like a lot of things." But the effort seemed in vain: Only two Senate Democrats voted for the program, and the bill failed.
Then voters in November 2010 gave Republicans a House majority. New Speaker John Boehner insisted on the program's revival in the final spending deal that he worked out with Obama last spring. "God gave us a miracle," Walden Ford said several months later, as she sat at a table stacked with framed pictures of kids who received vouchers. A picture of Boehner and some of the voucher families is the background on her laptop's screen, and tears come to her eyes as she thinks of her parents' struggle years ago, and hers: "I don't think I had enough respect for what my parents went through, until I went through this."
Now Walden Ford is in Arkansas, after giving away much of her furniture to Washington voucher families, but the kids who call her "Grandma," and their parents, have not forgotten her: Kelley plans to drive his kids down to visit Grandma Virginia in Arkansas next summer. Nor has Walden Ford forgotten what she learned: Her new goal is to bring vouchers to the Arkansas education system.