School Choice Programs Snowball
Since launching in 2004, Washington, D.C.'s voucher program has helped send over 3,200 disadvantaged D.C. students to private school. The idea is simple enough: Parents receive a sum of taxpayer money to use to send their children to a better school, public or private. But opposition centered on the use of federal funds for religious education crystallized in 2009, when opponents convinced lawmakers and the White House to cut funding.
Among those who responded were Virginia Walden Ford, the founder of D.C. Parents for School Choice, and Kevin Chavous, a board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a network of education activists. The groups ran ads, sponsored rallies, mobilized parents, and even staged a civil disobedience protest in front of the Department of Education building.
"Fighting for this under a president for whom most of our families voted has been really hard. They believed in him, and he didn't support the program," said Ford. "It was devastating." The battle in D.C. is a microcosm of one raging across the country.
Ford said that school reform has always felt like a calling, thanks to her family's history.
Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Ford's parents were prominent public school educators at the height of the civil rights movement. They attended White Memorial United Methodist Church, where Ford was president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. The family's efforts to get Ford and other black children into desegregated public schools incited hate from the KKK, who threw rocks at the Fords' windows and planted a burning cross in their yard.
Her son's experience in public school has also fueled her fight. "Drug dealers were courting him," said Ford, until a neighbor offered to pay his tuition to any private school. They selected Archbishop Carroll, a top Catholic high school in northeast D.C. "It was like a miracle," she said. "It saved his life. That's why I have to fight."
Ford has been a vocal champion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the first federally funded school voucher program. It allows students to leave some of the nation's lowest-performing public schools and attend private schools using federally funded tuition vouchers.
Ford's vision for school choice has gained traction across the country. According to the Heritage Foundation, 41 states, including the District of Columbia, have introduced or passed school-choice legislation in 2011. Eight states established new educational programs, while eleven others augmented or expanded existing programs.
Such reforms are largely due to Republican 2010 election gains. Governors and GOP-majority state legislatures have enacted education plans aimed at injecting greater choice, reform, and competition into public education.
New coalitions have broken down political boundaries and drawn activists to a common goal. "It's like nothing I've seen in my lifetime," said Clint Bolick, a lawyer with the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute and a defender of many high-profile school voucher programs. "You primarily have Republicans joining forces with low-income communities, faith-based communities, [and] a fair number of liberal activists including black mayors and legislators."
The result, Bolick said, has been "almost constant momentum over the past decade that culminated with spectacular gains this year."
This September, Wisconsin lifted restrictions on the number of students who can participate in Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program, the nation's longest-running voucher program. The state established a similar program in the neighboring city of Racine.