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Miss Virginia

"Miss Virginia" Continued...

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

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.

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