The Magazine

The Shame of the Senate

Fifty-eight pols to inner-city kids: Drop dead.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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The porch light is on at a modest townhouse in Northeast D.C. Inside, there's a strategy session that looks nothing like the ones held behind the closed doors of Congress. School-choice activist Virginia Walden-Ford is chatting with her sister and local parents. A little girl is perched on the arm of an overstuffed chair, watching American Idol. A troop of boys clatters down the narrow stairway, spilling into the living room and scattering shoes and action figures in the process. Conversation seamlessly stops and starts amid questions for moms or hugs for "Miss Virginia," as the kids call her.

"I fight for these children," says Walden-Ford. "And I will fight till I die. People think I'm saying that lightly, and I'm not. I will fight till I can't fight anymore because I feel these kids deserve this program."

Miss Virginia is the voice of school choice in Washington, D.C. She fought for years for the Opportunity Scholarship, a pilot school-choice program that serves 1,700 District kids from families with an average annual income of $23,000. It passed the Republican-controlled Senate in 2004, but only by two votes and after Walden-Ford spent months shuttling parents and kids to Capitol Hill every day, to the offices of the encouraging and the intractable alike.

The program has produced an Archbishop Carroll High School valedictorian, four years of positive reviews in a Georgetown University study of attitudes about the program, and a perennially high demand for scholarships. Yet success wasn't enough to keep the program safe in a Democrat-controlled Congress.

The Opportunity Scholarship's $14 million in yearly funding was nixed last week by Senator Dick Durbin, who inserted language in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill to sunset the program at the end of the next school year. On the Senate floor, he and ally Chuck Schumer attributed their action to a newfound interest in evaluating federal programs for effectiveness. Neither mentioned that Durbin counts the National Education Association among his top 10 lifetime contributors. Nor did they mention that Head Start, a federal pre-K education program, which has yet to present the evaluation required by its 1998 reauthorization, was nonetheless funded to the tune of $7 billion in the same bill.

"I had hoped that the successes of these kids would just speak for themselves," Walden-Ford says, the moms in the room shaking their heads in somber agreement as the room turned serious. "I can't even imagine telling these kids they have to go back to public schools."

Nevada Republican John Ensign offered an amendment to strike the Durbin language, but it was predictably defeated, 58-39. Now, school-choice supporters' only hope is a re-authorization vote. (The program must also be approved by the D.C. City Council, another obstacle built into Durbin's language.)

The battle will not be easy in a Democratic Congress, but there's some reason to be optimistic, says Andrew Campanella, a spokesman for Alliance for School Choice. "Support is definitely building," he said. "The fight is not over."

Though she voted against Ensign's amendment, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein spoke forcefully in favor of school choice, saying it's important for revamping education.

"I don't believe youngsters from lower income families should be denied the opportunity to learn in these smaller, more personal settings," Feinstein said. "I believe we need different models for children to learn."

Feinstein, who voted for the program in 2004, was encouraged by a letter from D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, who supports keeping the Opportunity Scholarship, as does Obama's secretary of education, Arne Duncan. (Both are generally ambivalent about vouchers.)

This spring, the Department of Education is set to release the final study in a series on the D.C. scholarships. Previous evaluations have shown improvement for subgroups in math and science, when compared with public-school peers, and significant improvement in parental satisfaction. Activists predict similar results this spring, and insist they will force Senate Democrats to follow through on their fact-finding instead of letting the program slowly drown in the seas of Senate procedure.

Patricia William is one parent who found satisfaction in a private school after her son, Fransoir, 12, struggled with large class sizes in public schools. A naturalized citizen from El Salvador and a nurse's assistant, she was riding the bus one morning, fretting about Fransoir's last bad school day, when she saw an ad for the scholarship.

"I got kind of sentimental, but I didn't want people to see me cry," William says. "I just wrote it down."

Fransoir William got a scholarship to attend Sacred Heart, and the changes in him were almost immediate, his mother says. "He would come home and say, 'Mommy, they really make time for me,' " William said. "I thought it would be his journey, but it was ours. Because when he's okay, I'm okay."

This week, Fransoir spoke at his first press conference, delivering a short speech in support of Ensign's amendment.

Such stories are not uncommon as families believe the scholarship means a salvation they could never otherwise afford. Ronald Holassie, a junior at Archbishop Carroll who would return to public schools for his senior year if funding runs out, speaks passionately for the program, with almost a hint of pleading: "It must continue. It must."

It's the stories and preternatural poise of students like Fransoir and Ronald Holassie's brother, Richard, that Walden-Ford is counting on to sway the Senate.

Richard, an 8-year-old who looks 6 but sounds 26, attends the Preparatory School on an Opportunity Scholarship. He spoke off-the-cuff at the press conference. Almost completely hidden by the podium, he entreated Congress to do what was right, occasionally reaching up to pound his fist for emphasis before concluding, "Does anyone have any questions for me?"

When I interviewed him later at Walden-Ford's house, he was equally confident, but his soliloquies also revealed the harsh realities D.C. public-school kids face. He transitions with tragic ease from the relative merits of portable video games to the time "three kids got shot" near the neighborhood school.

Safety was what Walden-Ford was looking for when she began her fight for school choice in 1997 to help her youngest son, William. His portrait hangs in the living room--a resolute Marine in dress blues, who has been to Iraq and back--as a reminder of her fight's importance.

"When I look at my son, and I think about what could have been," she says, trailing off. "I try not to think about that a lot, but he is such a fine young man." A private scholarship for William to attend Archbishop Carroll, provided by a man who had left the neighborhood and wanted to give back, was the best thing that ever happened to her family, Walden-Ford says. He was one of the few boys in the neighborhood who got out. Those who stayed invariably got into drugs or went to jail. Acting "too smart" in school was a particular invitation to abuse.

Walden-Ford wishes another recipient of a private scholarship would help her save the D.C. program: Barack Obama, who attended the prestigious Punahou School in Hawaii on scholarship. But Walden-Ford is skeptical that he'll make a stand for the scholarship.

"This has got nothing to do with children. It's about teachers' unions and special-interest groups," she says. "I'm concerned that he won't say it because he's controlled by the same people other Democrats are controlled by. I think it's difficult for him to say it. I hope and pray he does."

Jordan White, 17, who attends the Georgetown Day School on an Opportunity Scholarship, is more hopeful.

"From what I gather from a lot of his speeches, he cares about everyone having a chance to .  .  . educate themselves in a place where they'll be able to go as far as they can in life," she says. "If that's what the scholarship is doing, I don't see why he would oppose it."

Before leaving Walden-Ford's house, Richard grabs my arm.

"We need to talk about this scholarship again. It's important," he says before launching into his plan. "Remember how Miss Virginia said it? You have to fight for [the scholarship]. That's why I'm trying to fight for it. My momma's trying to fight for it. Even Batman's trying to fight for it!"

And, with that, Richard led the parade of families into the winter evening, bounding down Miss Virginia's scuffed-up steps, just as William had done years before him, determined to find allies in a sometimes unfriendly city, to fight alongside him and Batman.

Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.