Yes, Virginia, there is a voucher

Tuesday, February 3, 2004

By William McGurn

Maybe when your childhood memories include waking up at midnight to a burning cross on your front lawn, you're not going to let a Teddy Kennedy or Eleanor Holmes Norton intimidate you. Just ask Virginia Walden-Ford.

As executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, the 52-year-old Walden-Ford played a pivotal role in the landmark vouchers bill that just passed Congress.

She did that with a public campaign that pushed one uncomfortable fact to the fore: how many of the congressmen and senators fighting hardest against school choice for black and Latino children choose private schools for their own little darlings.

But the willingness to spread a little discomfort shouldn't be all that surprising coming from a woman whose father was the first African-American administrator in the Little Rock school district and who herself graduated from the same Central High that was home to the Little Rock Nine.

Stand up and fight

"I was called 'nigger' most every day and I begged my father -- begged him -- to let me go back to an all-black school," she says of her high school experience. "But daddy wouldn't let me quit, and I learned that I was supposed to stand up and fight.

Put the emphasis on fight. Little more than a year ago, when this reporter called the White House and the more established school choice groups about a D.C. voucher bill, the argument was the same: Washington just wasn't ready; it might take years to build up grass-roots support. But Walden-Ford and the parents around her insisted they were the grass roots.

And she didn't need Milton Friedman to tell her what vouchers could do. As a single mom in Washington's northeast working two jobs to support three children, she found the system in desperate shape by the time her youngest son, William, landed at Roosevelt High School: The school was a disaster and he was running with a bad crowd. But then William was given the gift of a lifetime when a neighbor offered a private voucher that allowed Walden-Ford to put him in Archbishop Carroll, a parochial school.

"The change in my son was immediate and dramatic," says Walden-Ford. Within short order she would proudly sit through two graduations she believes would have been unthinkable without that voucher. The first was from high school. The second -- the day after the 9/11 attacks -- was from Parris Island. While some of his contemporaries ended up in jail or plagued by drugs, today William is about to be deployed to Iraq as a U.S. Marine.

But even after Arizona Republican Jeff Flake put choice back on Congress's legislative table, it appeared to be headed nowhere. Then City Councilman Kevin Chavous announced a public hearing, and Walden-Ford surprised everyone by producing dozens of D.C. parents who testified they needed vouchers and needed them now. The establishment took note. Within two weeks school board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz would write an op-ed for the Washington Post arguing that choice be given a chance. And though Mayor Anthony Williams had thrown a wet blanket on vouchers in February, by May he had been born again.

Opposition to reform

Walden-Ford's second critical intervention came in the Senate, where the D.C. reform faced its stiffest opposition. It was precipitated by the bombshell dropped by Republican Arlen Specter and Democrat Mary Landrieu right before a crucial Senate Appropriations Committee vote: They were switching their previous yea votes to nays. On the way out, says Walden-Ford, Specter couldn't look them in the eye when he tried to explain himself. When Landrieu appeared, 9-year-old Mosiyah Hall asked the senator where she sent her own kids.

"Georgetown Day," she answered, a reference to one of the toniest private schools in the district. What really ticked off the moms, though, was when Landrieu tried to explain to them -- without knowing any of their financial circumstances -- that even with this voucher they couldn't afford Georgetown Day. "Senator Landrieu and Senator Specter talked to us like we were brain dead," says Walden-Ford.

That was the moment the D.C. moms decided they needed to up the ante. The first shot was a full-page ad in the New Orleans Time-Picayune in Landrieu's home state, with a photo of young Mosiyah under this headline: "My mom wants you to know that Sen. Mary Landrieu doesn't want me to go to the same school where her child goes." A similar ad would be run in Chicago likening Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin to George Wallace for his opposition to vouchers.

But the most controversial was yet to come. A TV spot run during "Good Morning America" featured Walden-Ford comparing Teddy Kennedy to Bull Connor -- the Birmingham police chief who loosed the dogs on Martin Luther King -- against a backdrop of searing civil-rights era images. "Senator Kennedy, your brothers fought for us," says Walden-Ford, surrounded by a group of black children. "Why do you fight against us?" None of her coalition partners really wanted her to do these ads, and Mayor Williams criticized them publicly. Today Walden-Ford not only defends the ads, she thinks D.C. vouchers might have fallen to the wayside if she'd just continued to play nice. After all, an anti-voucher vote for Democrats has traditionally had no negative consequences, while a pro-voucher vote risked irritating the teachers unions into backing a challenger in your next primary.

On the defensive

The ads were never going to change the minds of die-hards such as Kennedy. But it did put them on the defensive, and some of his colleagues had to ask themselves whether this was really the kind of thing they wanted showing up in their own hometown papers and TV stations. Walden-Ford notes that after the ads ran, Landrieu voted "present" instead of "no" when the measure finally came up for an Appropriations vote. And during the Senate floor debate, only four Senators were willing to speak out against it.

"When you're a parent and you go up to Capitol Hill, they're nice to you and get you coffee but then they go out and vote against you," says Walden-Ford. "We decided we had to do something to make them take us seriously." It's probably safe to say: Now they do.

William McGurn is the Wall Street Journal's chief editorial writer.

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