Virginia Walden Ford Earns Lifetime Achievement Award


Ford, center, was described as a “tireless advocate for school choice”; Photo by Jason Dixson Photography:

The school choice advocate was surprised with the award in Washington D.C.

July 31, 2019

Little Rock, Ark. — Educational opportunity advocate Virginia Walden Ford was recently recognized with the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Coalition for Public School Options (PSO). Ford was a keynote speaker at the organization’s annual Parent Conference held in Washington D.C., where she was surprised with the award. Ford was asked to attend the annual event as part of an Advocacy Bootcamp for parents.

“For decades Virginia Walden Ford has fought for those who have the most at stake in our education system: The children. From her advocacy for school choice in the D.C. school system, to her work at the national level to create the first ever Opportunity Scholarships for low-income children, Ms. Ford has never shied away from fighting for families,” said Colleen Cook, PSO Board President.

“Still today – decades after her own children have grown – Ms. Ford carries the torch. It’s for these reasons that Public School Options was proud to present her with our first ever Lifetime Achievement Award. Thank you, Ms. Ford, for all you have done and continue to do for the families of America.”

About Virginia Walden Ford

Virginia Walden Ford is a leading advocate for improved educational opportunities in America’s schools, especially for low-income children. As a single parent, Virginia organized a group of parent advocates who demanded more school options for their children. That initiative led to the 2003 passage of the nation’s first-ever Opportunity Scholarship Program that benefited children in Washington, D.C.  This program provides scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools, while boosting federal funding for traditional public schools and public charter schools. Since the program’s inception, thousands of students have received Opportunity Scholarships, and the program boasts a 91 percent high school graduation rate. Virginia continues to speak up for families and school choice programs nationwide and she is the subject of the 2019 film “Miss Virginia” starring Uzo Aduba, Matthew Modine, Vanessa Williams, Amirah Vann and Niles Fitch.

About the National Coalition for Public School Options

The National Coalition for Public School Options (PSO) is a national alliance of parents that supports and defends parents’ rights to access the best public school options for their children. The coalition supports the creation of public school options, including charter schools, online schools, magnet schools, open enrollment policies, and other innovative education programs. Additionally, we advocate for free and equal access without restrictions to these public schools for all children.


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Miss Virginia Movie Announces Oct. 18 Debut

The film starring Uzo Aduba, Matthew Modine and other industry vets will roll out in select theaters and on VOD


Los Angeles – Vertical Entertainment has acquired the North America distribution rights to Miss Virginia, a drama inspired by a true story of a struggling inner-city mother who sacrifices everything to give her son a good education. Unwilling to allow her son to stay in a dangerous school, she launches a movement that could save his future — and that of thousands like him. Starring Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”), Matthew Modine (“Stranger Things”), Aunjanue Ellis (“The Help”), and Vanessa Williams (“Ugly Betty”). Vertical Entertainment will be releasing the film in select theaters and on VOD October 18th.

“The Miss Virginia team is delighted to partner with Vertical in bringing the inspiring true story of Virginia Walden Ford to audiences across the US,” said writer-producer Erin O’Connor. “Her story is one of grit, determination, and the transformative power of a mother who refuses to give up on her son.”

The deal was negotiated by Josh Spector at Vertical and Stacey Parks and Rob Pfaltzgraff on behalf of the Moving Picture Institute (MPI).

The film was directed by R. J. Daniel Hanna; written by Erin O’Connor; produced by M. Elizabeth Hughes, Stacey Parks, Maurice Black, Erin O’Connor, and Rob Pfaltzgraff; executive produced by Virginia Walden Ford and Nick Reid; cinematography from Nancy Schreiber; edited by Brian Scofield; production design by Grace Alie; with music by Laura Karpman. The film was produced by MPI.

Aduba is represented by UTA, Management 360 and ID Public Relations. Modine is represented by Luber Roklin Entertainment. Ellis is represented by ICM Partners and TMT Entertainment Group. Williams is represented by UTA.

About Vertical Entertainment

Vertical Entertainment is a global independent distributor that offers a unique combination of full-service marketing and sales services. Dedicated to providing highly effective and collaborative solutions, Vertical leverages unparalleled relationships to maximize revenue across all streams. The marketing and sales expertise from Vertical’s seasoned team gives content partners a wealth of experience minus the studio costs.

Vertical won a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress for Molly Shannon’s role in “Other People” and the film won a GLAAD Award for “Outstanding Film Limited Release” as well.  Vertical also had four other Indie Spirit nominations — three more for “Other People” (Best Lead Actor for Jesse Plemons, and Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay for filmmaker Chris Kelly) and one for Best International Film for Babak Anvari’s “Under the Shadow,” which was also the official UK submission for the 2017 Oscars, in addition to winning one BAFTA Award and three British Independent Film Awards.

Upcoming Vertical releases are “Lying and Stealing” starring Theo James and Emily Ratajkowski  and “The Operative” starring Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, and Cas Anvar. Other notable recent releases include “American Woman” starring Sienna Miller, Aaron Paul, and Christina Hendricks; “The Professor and the Madman” starring Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, and Natalie Dormer; “Drunk Parents” starring Alec Baldwin, Salma Hayek, Jim Gaffigan, Ben Platt, and Joe Manganiello; Keith Behrman’s “Giant Little Ones” starring Josh Wiggins, Kyle Maclachlan, and Maria Bello; Amma Asante’s “Where Hands Touch” starring Amandla Stenberg, Abbie Cornish, and George MacKay; Sam Boyd’s “In A Relationship” starring Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Dree Hemingway, and Patrick Gibson; “Welcome Home” starring Aaron Paul, Emily Ratajkowski, and Riccardo Scamarcio; Rob Reiner’s “Shock and Awe” starring Woody Harrelson, James Marsden, Milla Jovovich, Jessica Biel, and Tommy Lee Jones; and Kevin Connolly’s “Gotti” starring John Travolta, Kelly Preston, and Chris Mulkey. For more information, please visit and

virginia walden ford graduation

What Prejudice Taught Me About Advocacy

In 1966, as my twin sister Harrietta and I were preparing to go to high school for the first time, the federal government encouraged the state of Arkansas to ramp up its public school desegregation efforts that had started just a decade earlier. It was announced that more black students would be attending Little Rock Central High School that fall. Harrietta and I had been excited to attend Horace Mann Senior High School, an all black high school where our older sister had attended.  But we were selected along with 133 other black kids to go to desegregated Central High School instead.
Just a decade after the “Little Rock 10” had famously desegregated that school, traces of resentment and discomfort lingered. Being a young woman still trying to sort out my own life and wants and needs, I was hesitant to be a trailblazer. Like many young people, I just wanted to do my own thing and not draw much attention to myself. The idea of “all eyes on me” at a time that I just wanted to fly under the radar made me anxious — and as a young black woman growing up in volatile times, attending Central High School made me a little scared, too.
So when our parents told us we would be attending Little Rock Central High School, we told them that we didn’t want to go there.  Harrietta and I wanted to go to Horace Mann, just like our sister had. My parents knew the significance of what having my sister and I, and others like us, go to the traditionally “white” school meant though. They would not waver on their decision about our educational future.
They told us that although we were young, we had an important task to attend the newly integrated school and stand up for those who would follow us.  My mother reminded us that many people had fought for the opportunity to show that black children could excel and thrive in the same educational environments as our white peers. This was very difficult for us to accept but as the first days of school grew closer, we finally began to understand our role in facilitating positive change in educational opportunity in Little Rock and beyond.
Even though there were many positive changes in how black students were being treated in those days, Harrietta and I still experienced a lot of racism and prejudice.
Some teachers ignored us and never called on us in class, as if we were invisible.  I had always been a good math student. But I was devastated during my first semester at Central when I received a failing grade in geometry.  I had already told my parents that my teacher never let me answer questions in class. Knowing that this was a subject that I would never fail, my parents met with the teacher to ask what was wrong.  She explained that I had never participated in class, and that this was a large part of our grades. Of course, I told my parents that I had tried to raise my hand many times but she never called on me, so I finally gave up trying to participate.
The principal investigated the situation and he quickly learned that the teacher had failed all of the black students, believing that none of us should have been there.  I was allowed to retake the class and earned a passing grade.
Unfortunately, my geometry teacher wasn’t alone in thinking that we shouldn’t have been there.  Other teachers and students made it clearly known that they believed we belonged somewhere else. Most of the white students wanted to be receptive to us but were often afraid to befriend us and were sometimes encouraged by adults to stay away from us.  It was tough for us to go through the normal challenges of high school with that kind of pressure.
I’ve always believed that if the black and white students had been supported at that time by some of the adults we would have had a much more positive experience in high school.  In fact, 50 years later, my classmates both black and white have worked to put all those uncomfortable memories behind us. Our recent Little Rock Central High School Class of 1969 reunion was a joyful one, with positive interactions among all the attendees.
But back in the moment, in those days, I begged my father to allow me to transfer to Horace Mann.  I was just too unhappy. He gently but firmly explained to me that I had a responsibility to continue there to set an example for my younger sisters. And I took that challenge very seriously. I vowed that I would stay at Central High School and do my best. Of course, I had my twin Harrietta for support and we have always believed that together we could accomplish anything. It was also comforting that many of the 133 other black children who were attending there were my childhood friends. Many of us had been classmates in segregated schools since first grade and we helped each other.  On May 28th, 1969 we graduated with pride and joy. Standing there receiving our diplomas with over 700 students was incredible.  The look of pride on our parent’s faces helped us understand that no matter what our difficulties had been, it was definitely worth it.  We had been educated in the best high school in Little Rock and the doors were wide open for us to be successful in the future.
In retrospect, those difficult days at Central High School were the start of my lifelong call to advocate for educational opportunities. I learned that being uncomfortable, and making others feel uncomfortable, are all part of the necessary process of positive change. If I’d simply hid my head in the sand, like I’d wanted to do before my freshman year, I would have missed out on a world-class education alongside peers from all backgrounds. I developed greater confidence around who I am as a person, just as I am, and learned to speak up for others who may experience unfair treatment.
The true spirit of advocacy is founded in a place of necessity and fueled by a passion for positive change. I learned that in my formative high school years and continue to follow my heart today, even when the path may be uncomfortable.

11 Tips for Organizing Parents to Push for School Choice

My journey from being one mother fighting for my own child’s education to leading thousands of mothers (and fathers and grandparents and supporters) pushing for more educational opportunities for all children has been incredible.

I have learned so much about the importance of hard work and dedication — but most importantly, I have learned that the most vital causes need an army of supporters to rally behind them. More educational opportunity for American children is not a political issue in need of “taking sides,” though there are some who would paint it in that light. Access to more educational options for kids from every neighborhood — from the poorest to most affluent — is something that ultimately benefits all children and the future of the country.  I challenge anyone who thinks differently to speak with the hundreds of parents I’ve spoken with, face-to-face, in my 20+ years trying to improve school choice. Those parents don’t care about the politics of school choice; they only want what is best for their children. 

I learned a lot in organizing D.C. parents to fight for better educational opportunities for their children and I hear from many parents all over the country who are frustrated by the lack of options in their own neighborhoods, in their own states, and who want some guidance on where to even start when it comes to improving outcomes.

Below are some tips I share with others who are trying to organize school choice activism in their own cities and states.

  • Go where the parents are — go to their neighborhoods, community centers, and churches. Do not ask them to come to you.
  • Communicate with parents regularly through letters, newsletters, media, churches, civic organizations, etc.
  • Talk regularly to community leaders on email and the phone: Local politicians, school administrators, tenant associations and more.
  • Build strong coalitions to create strong support in the community.
  • Treat parents with the utmost respect. Take time to listen and understand their problems as it relates to their children’s educational future.
  • Be honest with parents about why you are there and what you can do to help them.
  • Remember that all parents have something they can add: some make speeches, some pass out flyers. Each has his or her own way of contributing.
  • It’s all about the follow up. If you present yourself as helping parents, be prepared to go the extra mile to make sure that parents have you with them as they complete the process of finding educational opportunities for their children.
  • Make sure that parent meetings start on time, do not last too long, have childcare, refreshments and are structured to provide the best information possible in order to empower parents in attendance.
  • Choose your battles. Stay away from debates that tend to confuse and frustrate parents who are hungry for solutions to educating their children. They ultimately have to make the final decision for their children and have a right to hear all sides. When you encounter opposition, keep your dignity and give parents valuable information that will be helpful to them in their search.
  • Share your vision of where you are going and how those parents fit into that vision.

Laws are developed and passed by a select group of politicians – but do not discount the power of parents who team up for the better good. I know from experience that when parents raise their voices collectively, they can prevail.

Why Middle Class Families Need School Choice

I’ve met hundreds of families in the two decades that I’ve been fighting for educational opportunity for children and I have an insider’s look at the way school choice transforms lives — across economic, racial and religious divides.

A frustrating misconception that I face a lot is the idea that school choice options are only intended for lower income families. It is true that scholarship programs, like the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program that I helped fight to establish, benefit families that would have no other way to afford private schools for their children. It is also true that charter schools and magnet schools offer opportunities for children from the toughest neighborhoods to choose something other than their assigned public school. Yes, children from lower income families benefit from school choice options but the opportunities those children experience should not be quarantined to one segment of the population.

In a lot of cases, higher-income families have the means to create their own educational opportunities through paying tuition at private schools or living purposefully in high-performing public school districts. This is not to say that higher income families do not benefit from school choice — they most certainly do and for a variety of reasons including differences in individual learning styles of children — but the urgency is not always as high as a collective group.

In my opinion, the group that most desperately needs more school choice options, at this point in the fight, is middle class families.

Most working-class, middle-class families make enough income that they do not qualify for scholarships to private schools. The public schools in their neighborhoods may or may not be high performing, and even the ones that offer high academic ratings for students may not be the right fit for individual children. For middle-class families with charter or magnet school options, the chance at finding a better fit for their children is higher but still not as wide as if private schools were also an option.

Middle-class families are often so steeped in the everyday — from busy work schedules to family obligations — that settling for the status quo when it comes to school options is easier. In most cases, these middle-class children are not in dangerous schools or neighborhoods but since when were those the only criteria worth fighting to change for our children? Every child deserves the education that fits him or her the best. Period. And middle-class families are simply not seeing enough choices when it comes to how their children should learn.

Middle-class families are a group that needs more attention when options for school choice are discussed. It is a group that deserves better from policymakers and legislators. It is a group I am still fighting to help provide a voice for when it comes to improved educational opportunities for children. I hope that you will fight alongside me because every child, not just the poorest and richest among us, deserve the education designed for them.

One Child: Why I Decided to Fight for Education Options for Children

My fight for school choice for all children started with a much smaller population – my own three children, and more specifically, my youngest son.

Life was challenging, raising three children in Washington D.C. in the 1990s. There was always the worry of the mean streets attracting my children.

I decided as a young mother that I would do all I could to make sure that did not happen and I made sure to stay closely in my children’s lives. That wasn’t always an easy task. I was a single mother, working hard to make ends meet while still being an involved mother. It was hard but my two older children Michael and Miashia found their places in life and school and, working together as a family, they excelled.

    With my daughter, Miashia

My youngest son, William, started off with some speech problems and as happens to many young black and brown boys in the inner city, the education system wrote him off as not capable of learning. This started a downward spiral for him that eventually started to pull him towards the rough streets.

I watched him align himself with the negative influences of our community. Drugs were prevalent around our neighborhood and the drug dealers targeted our young boys to work for them with the promise of expensive items (shoes, clothes, etc.) that they knew their single, struggling parents (mostly mothers) couldn’t afford. I saw my son choosing to run with the kids who were getting in trouble and when I asked him why, he told me that he felt safer being a part of the thug world. He said that smart kids got beat up. This was a real fear since we knew of at least one child who had been attacked because he was acting “too smart.”

William began skipping school and getting into all kinds of trouble in school with teachers and administration. He truly believe that if he acted “bad,” he would be safe. He seldom did homework because he felt like it didn’t matter to anyone whether he passed or failed.

Though a really good kid, it became harder for me to rein William in and I feared for him. When he was 13 years old, a neighbor offered us a partial scholarship to attend a private school. It meant that I would need to get a second job to pay the remaining amount, but it was a way out for him and I knew I would do whatever I could to keep him safe and ensure him a quality education. I took an evening job as a recording studio night auditor. After a nine hour day at my normal job, I’d work three nights from 9 p.m. to midnight. It was the only way I could afford this opportunity for my son and so I did it with gratitude.

          With my son William in the spring of 2018

My neighbor saw something special in my child and wanted to help. He had grown up in our neighborhood, left for a time and returned with his family. With the help of his parents, he had done well for himself in real estate. Upon his return, he saw how so many of these fatherless boys needed support from a man who believed in them and he helped them learn work ethics, working with him or with other business people he knew. With my William, this neighbor truly believed a quality education was what he needed. And he was right.

My son excelled in his new school and it was the beginning of a happy ending for our family. Yet as happy as we were, my neighbors children were not doing so well — and their neighbors’ children weren’t either. It became clear to me that something needed to be done to help all children have better educational opportunity, regardless of where they lived or where they were districted to attend school. I knew that I wanted to help and when the opportunity arose to speak out for the district’s low income and working class families, I found my voice and ultimately was joined by thousands of parents who wanted only the best for their children, too.

At the beginning, I had no idea where to start. I attended D.C. Board of Education meetings but found out early on that I was not going to be heard. Then in August 1997 I was directing a Summer Program in Southeast DC at the Fishing School, a faith-based program for low income children and got a call from the Center for Education Reform asking to speak with the parents of the children we served about a possible scholarship program.

I planned the meeting, no parents showed up and the CER Representative and I realized that the most direct way to garner attention for more educational opportunity would be to share my story of my son’s experience after receiving a scholarship.

I spoke for the first time before U.S. Representative Dick Armey and the House Education and Taskforce Committee, and the members actually listened to what I had to say. It was empowering. I knew at that moment that I could really make a difference and began to go out into the community and talk to parents about their dreams and hopes for the education of their children.

I didn’t set out to fight for school choice or speak up for other children; I started out as an everyday mother, wanting the absolute best in opportunities for my kids. I quickly found that drive was reflected in the hearts and minds of other parents who also felt trapped in an educational system that was failing their children.

I decided to fight for school choice because of MY child but I continued to fight for the children of others who deserved so much more than they were receiving.

 My kids, with their kids and loved ones