October 18, 2019
By Jennifer Tiedemann
The system was stacked against Virginia Walden Ford, but she wouldn’t stop until her son—and countless children like him—had access to a good education. Now, her story has come to the big screen, putting the spotlight on how choice can make a real difference in a student’s education.
Based on a true story, “Miss Virginia” tells the story of Walden Ford’s fight to give parents all across the financial spectrum more say in their child’s education. Her tireless efforts resulted in the creation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program in 2004, providing scholarships to low-income students and making it possible for them to attend private schools.
“Miss Virginia” premiered in a New York City theater in early October to a packed audience, including Goldwater Institute staff. In the movie, Walden Ford (portrayed by Emmy winner Uzo Aduba of “Orange Is the New Black”) is a single mother living in Washington, D.C., struggling to make ends meet and watching her teenage son slowly fall victim to bad influences in his failing public school. Unable to pay the private school tuition to give her son the good education he needs, she takes a cleaning job in her congresswoman’s office, and through a report discarded in a trashcan, she learns that D.C. spends more money on public school education per student than it would cost to pay for that student to attend a private school. So begins a journey for Walden Ford—one that takes her from concerned parent to the face of a movement to expand educational opportunities for all students.
Through the film, it’s more than apparent how uphill Walden Ford’s battle truly was. She faces opposition at nearly every turn—from members of Congress (including her eventual ally, fictional congressman Cliff Williams), from her city council, from the media, and from many of her neighbors who prefer the status quo. But her persistence in the face of these challenges and tragedy in her community gives voice to a growing and vocal group of allies, empowered to join her and speak out on how the existing educational system isn’t working for their children. Their fight wasn’t anti-public school, but rather about giving kids the options that meet their unique needs and getting them to better schools when their local schools fail them.
The story of “Miss Virginia” provides an important reminder of how school choice affects real people—to the point of truly changing lives. Too often, the issue of school choice is politicized, described by its opponents as a right-wing scheme to benefit the wealthy. But as forthcoming Goldwater Institute research shows, school choice programs help low-income students: Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program is putting private school within financial reach for those who are most economically disadvantaged, giving these low-income students the same educational opportunities that their more well-off peers have. (Stay tuned for our report on this issue.)
The success of programs like Arizona’s ESA program is a testament to school choice trailblazers like Virginia Walden Ford—and “Miss Virginia” is a fitting tribute to her efforts to make D.C.’s school choice program a reality and to her ongoing work in the education freedom space. It’s an inspiring lesson that the die is not cast because of where you were born and how much money you have.
“Miss Virginia” opens today in select theaters and is available now for streaming in the iTunes Store.
Jennifer Tiedemann is the Deputy Director of Communications at the Goldwater Institute.
Photo and trailer: Moving Picture Institute.