VIRGINIA WALDEN FORD: For the students

Put families above politics

Parents are the first and primary advocates for their kids, and choosing a school is one of the most important decisions parents make for their children.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of folks out there who believe they know best when it comes to making that decision. Worse, they believe some choices should only be available to those who can afford to pay or move to a certain part of town.

If you don't have time to read this whole piece, let me get the good stuff out of the way upfront: All children deserve to find the schooling option that works best for them. Doesn't matter where they live. Doesn't matter how much money their family makes. Everyone should have a choice.

Now, there's a misconception out there that school-choice advocates are against public schools--or that they only support charter schools or private schools or some other type of schooling.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I should know. I've walked that walk, and I'm proud to share my story with anyone who will listen if it helps increase educational access.

My children all had different learning styles, so I looked for schools and programs that would nurture their particular needs. When my youngest son needed a different educational option, I faced tremendous obstacles to find a school that fit him better than our district school. I got lucky. I found that school--and the financial assistance I needed to afford to educate him there.

Two decades have passed since I started my personal quest for school choice, and I've fought every step of the way for more educational rights for all parents. I'm beyond honored to have my journey play out on the big screen when Miss Virginia, a feature film starring Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba, opens this month.

If you'd told me back then that one mom's fight for her son's education would someday light up the silver screen, I'd never have believed you. I was just doing what millions of parents do each day in this country: busting their behinds to secure a better future for their kids via K-12 education.

To be fair, we've made progress. Today, every state in the union--including Arkansas through its Succeed Scholarship Program--has some form of school choice, including charter and magnet schools. More than two dozen states have programs in place to help parents access private schools that previously would have been financially off-limits.

However, according to national research, there's a huge disconnect between what parents want and what they're able to get: 82 percent of students attend a traditional public school, but only 36 percent would choose that schooling type if they were able to go elsewhere. More than half would select a private or charter school.

Those numbers tell a powerful story that elected officials--the folks in power who can empower parents--need to hear. Sadly, far too much of the rhetoric about school choice focuses on systems instead of students.

I'm tired of hearing that charter schools and private school choice take money from public schools. When a student leaves any school, that school is no longer entitled to funding for that student. That's just common sense.

I'm tired of hearing that public schools serve all. That's a lie the privileged and powerful tell themselves so they can feel better about dismal outcomes from schools in low-income communities that serve people who look like me.

Most of all, I'm sick and tired of being told that we just need to wait for things to change.

When I was desperately seeking another school for my son, I didn't have time to sit around and hope the system got better. I didn't want mealy-mouthed answers from bureaucrats who just wanted to pass me off to another office. I needed options, and I needed them right then.

To those parents who find themselves in a similar situation, speak up.

Research shows that school choice breaks down racial and socioeconomic barriers, but your story is more compelling than any data point will ever be. Speak out to anyone who will listen--and speak louder to those who won't.

You deserve to be heard.

School-choice advocates have come a long way, but it's not good enough. We have to put families above politics, and we can't afford to wait.


Virginia Walden Ford of Little Rock is a parent advocate, board member of national education nonprofit EdChoice, and the subject of the new feature film Miss Virginia.

Editorial on 10/14/2019

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