Virginia Walden Ford knows a thing or two about school choice. A native of Little Rock, she was one of 130 African-American students handpicked to desegregate the city's high schools in the 1960's.
Last week (Sept. 20), Ford was in Memphis and center stage as the speaker at a luncheon fashioned for a discussion on opportunity scholarships and school choice.
"Tennessee has a great opportunity to get education right," said Ford, former executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, a clearinghouse designed to educate and empower parents to make appropriate educational decisions for their children with opportunity scholarships.
The session took place at Coleman Ave. Church of Christ, 3380 Coleman Ave., the home church of state Rep. John DeBerry, the House sponsor of bill that state Sen. Brian Kelsey (District 31, Cordova, East Memphis, Germantown) plans to sponsor next year. According to Kelsey, the bill would "allow low-income children to take the funds we spend on them to the K-12 school of their choice."
Ford led the effort to pass the bill in Washington. D.C. During the luncheon, she Ford talked about her struggles there with her son William's education.
"I did not want my son to get lost in the system that was not nurturing what he could do," Ford said, sharing that in 1996 she was a single mother with three children and very little resources. "The only choice I had for William was where he was and that was not working for him."
Convinced that her son would fail if she did nothing, Ford said someone from the community offered him a scholarship to attend a school of his choice. She chose a Catholic high school in D.C., where William improved and succeeded.
"Mom, for the first time people cared whether I learned or not other than you," she recalled him telling her after school one day.
Ford wanted other parents to have the same opportunity, becoming the leading voice for opportunity scholarships in the D.C. area.
"William showed us that if you put children in an environment that is nurturing of their academic skills, they will get it and go above and beyond," said Ford.
Kelsey detailed the legislative history of the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act (EOSA) in Tennessee. He envisions the version of it that becomes law applying to the vast majority of students in Shelby County given the larger numbers of students from low-income families. He added that care needs to be taken "to make sure that we are getting some lower middle class folks as well that are struggling to pay the bills and don't have money for private schools."
"We have to be more concerned about whether our children are being educated and not where they are educated," said Kelsey. "This is going to provide some wonderful opportunities for students who are not being served to the extent that they need to be."
Kelsey referenced two studies that he said backed up the effectiveness of opportunity scholarships, including one a couple of weeks ago from the Harvard School of Education. He also talked about challenges with vouchers for the EOSA.
"There's going to be a big push back from people who are more focused on money than who are focused on the students, and we have to speak with one voice that we are in favor of what's best for the students and not what's best for adults in this state," he said.
Stephanie Linn, state Programs & Government Relations Director, said it was a little early to tell how the community would receive the idea of vouchers, pointing that it would depend on how the bill is set up.
Ford said ultimately there must be a reckoning with the reality of education in America.
"In the real world, kids think about dropping out of school before the ninth grade and 44 percent of children do not graduate from high school."
Rep. DeBerry said he believes in the EOSA.
"We have to look at other options to educate our children in order to turn out a better product," he said. "It's important to give parents choice so they can exercise their constitutional right to educate their children."
In November a board of nine members is slated to present Gov. Bill Haslam with a list of recommendations for the bill, with Haslam to decide if he will offer the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act as one of his signature administration bills for 2013.
Kelsey said he is sponsoring the bill because it hits close to home.
"I am a product of a scholarship," he said. "I got a scholarship to attend a private school and I just feel that every student deserves that same opportunity."