What’s it like to have your life story
told on the big screen? Sir when you said—I say a lot of things, I’m a politician. So what you did so that low-income students could go to private schools? Well I want to do that here. You have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting that done. The new movie, Miss Virginia, tells the unlikely story of Virginia Walden Ford, who as a single mother in Washington D.C. in the early 2000’s fought to create a federally funded private school voucher program that would allow poor kids, including her son, to escape failing public schools. Against long odds and institutional hostility, she succeeded, and is played with fiery passion by “Orange is the New Black” Uzo Abduba. Every time she says, “my name is Virginia Walden,” I freak out. I just go, “Oh my gosh she’s using my name!” That kind of silliness. So I’m…it’s surreal. I never ever thought that anybody would even notice our fight. So it also is humbling. You know, I mean we were a ragtag group of parents going up on the hill talking to members of Congress to help save our kids. And so it’s it’s surreal and unreal to me. What in your experience with the D.C. Public Schools and your son what was the essential thing that they were failing him by? I think he was just one of those kids who’s just gonna fall through the cracks you know if somebody didn’t intervene. I remember going to school one day to talk to a teacher about a class that he had said he was having trouble with and she didn’t even know who he was. She had 40 kids in her class. Walden Ford’s own backstory as a student is both harrowing and inspirational. She was among the early waves of black kids that integrated public schools in Little Rock Arkansas in the late 1950s, an experience that informed her actions as a parent. I remember my dad saying you’re going to Central. And I’m like oh no I’m not. I’m going to the black high school. And he told me you have a responsibility to go to Central and do well, because you have younger siblings and the world will look at you based on the fact that you paved the way for for your younger siblings. And even at 14, I was 14, I took that really seriously. And I really believe my parents were people that serve the community and I remember thinking that’s someone—I want to make a difference. So at 14 I knew that I was going to do things that would make a difference, that I was going to serve my community. But it was based on my parents, my grandfather was a slave who bought his brothers out of slavery, and ran a bakery in Little Rock. That’s how he raised the money. And in knowing that I had that kind of legacy in my family certainly impacted who I am and who my sisters are. But service was a big deal. When Daddy got the job at Little Rock’s School District, he was the first black assistant superintendent for Little Rock’s School District. You know the Klan burned a cross in our yard, they threw rocks through our windows, and I remember my dad saying, you know, don’t be mad, change the world. There’s a bit of irony in that as a child as a young person you fought for access to the public schools, as a parent you were fighting for the right of exit from the public school system. What’s the consistent throughline in those actions? In both actions we’re fighting for quality education. During civil rights movement, when we were trying to get into public schools it was not to get in the building, it was to get what was in the building. We were taught with books there were oftentimes out-of-date. Science labs where 20 kids would use one microscope. Or, those kinds of things, that really keep kids from getting what they really need. Separate but equal was a lie. Exactly. When schools started changing and deteriorating, I remember saying this is not acceptable. Actually I send speeches all the time to African Americans, I know why you mad about it coming out of public schools and stuff I know how you felt. I was there. But, do you really want our kids to stay in bad schools? You know because we fought 60 years ago to get in another building? That’s not what we want. So you gotta get it in your head, this is something different. I remember telling Ted Kennedy one time, your brothers fought for us to get into traditional public schools, and why are you fighting against us getting out of these same schools because they’re bad? Now those up on the hill, they said we would fail. They say that we all don’t care about our
kids. But they could not be more wrong. One of the most persistent and paternalistic criticisms of parental empowerment in education is that poor, uneducated parents simply don’t have the background or the intelligence to make informed decisions for their kids.
Walden Ford is having none of that. Every time we went to a meeting in the
communities that we were serving, which were low income communities in Washington, I would ask Q&A you know we’d do a Q&A, and I would say what do you want for your child? Low-income parents will come there with lists of what they wanted for their children. And they were articulate and passionate, and it was amazing to hear them speak about what their desires were, and what they would hope for their children if their children an opportunity to go to a school that served them well. What’s the basic metric of a successful school in a choice environment for you? When you walk into a school and kids are smiling, and they’re engaged, and they’re safe, and parents are involved, that’s a key to a successful school. And they have the equipment and library. So that kind of stuff is more important than test scores or—you know I think you do have to test kids. I mean I think you have to determine where they are and what they need to learn, but I think they you can’t define their whole existence by test scores. I think there are a lot of things that go along with that. With the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, in their initial years the fact that kids were safe and their parents were happy, and they were graduating at 20% above the rate of D.C. Public Schools that was way more important than test scores. They were going on. You know people never did understand it when our kids went into those schools they were behind. So they had to catch up. And so test scores in the early years for some time are just not correct. And those same kids were —William graduated, he graduated valedictorian. But in D.C. public school his test scores were three or four levels below wherever whatever grade he was in. I used to have to fight him to go to school I dropped him off at school he’d leave. I would drive away and he’d just be gone. I get a call from school saying he wasn’t there. But when he was moved to a private school he liked it, he liked going there, he would jump up and get ready for school and I asked him why are you acting like that? Okay I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. When are you gonna do something silly? And he’d say Mama—and thirteen year olds don’t talk like this, but he said Mama for the first time in my life I believe that others care about me learning other than you. Walden Ford is adamant that partisan politics not get in the way of helping children. She acknowledges that having Donald Trump support school choice is a good thing for the movement, even as it possibly makes reform harder to sell among blacks and Latinos. She’s equally dismayed that none of the leading Democratic candidates for president has embraced school choice. She’s especially troubled by senator Cory Booker who as mayor of Newark, New Jersey was a strong proponent of education reform. I am constantly disappointed every time I read something, especially from Corey, because I know him well. And I know what a big supporter he was. What’s so easy to say, and I’m a Democrat, and it’s so easy for us to say, they just need more money. I mean that is that’s the most wrongheaded way of thinking about education these days. It’s not just about more money, it’s about a result, it’s about achievement, it’s about how we’re delivering that education, and the choices we’re giving our parents. To me it’s disappointing and that’s why I think this is the best time ever for this film to come out. Because what I’m seeing is a lot of people that are supporting people that oppose school choice to get elected. And that really concerns me. If we don’t figure out how to get everybody on the same page about educating children, this country is going to be a mess anyway. Now poor kids have just as much of a right to learn as rich ones, However the 2020 election plays out or even how the school choice movement evolves, Walden Ford is emphatic that “Miss Virginia,” the movie version of her life, has a message that needs to be clearly understood and embraced. You know, you have every right to look at your child and determine where he will best be taught, and that’s what I want parents to take away. You don’t have to sit back and just take it. At the end of the day this movie certainly is my story but it’s any parent’s story. It’s every parent’s story, who ever fought for their children, so it honors the parents.