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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.

Spectacular Gains

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 ...

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In the Magazine

November 2011

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