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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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.