Last weekend, Houston families and school choice activists spent the final day of National School Choice Week discussing education options and screening the 2019 film “Miss Virginia.”
Based on the true story of Virginia Walden Ford, “Miss Virginia” depicts the plight of a single, black mother desperate to move her son out of Washington, D.C.’s troubled public schools.
Played by Emmy-award winning actress Uzo Aduba, Virginia takes a second job in order to pay for her son’s private school, but even then cannot afford tuition and must return him to a school with indifferent teachers, crumbling facilities, and violent bullies who work for neighborhood drug dealers.
After discovering that per-pupil spending on D.C. public schools was more than twice the private school’s tuition, Virginia rallies other parents, and despite opposition from her own congressional representative and the local public school system, she learns to advocate for families desperate for educational alternatives in her community.
As with the real Virginia Walden, her efforts help persuade Congress to authorize the first Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income children in Washington, D.C.
While the film compresses the actual timeline of events and adds typical movie-industry dramatic flourishes, “Miss Virginia” presents a heartbreaking account of the real experiences of many inner-city parents and students. The Houston audience viewing the film, primarily comprised of black and Hispanic families, burst into applause at the end of a scene depicting the final House vote approving the scholarship program.
President Obama repeatedly called for defunding the program in his presidential budget proposals, but was ultimately unsuccessful in convincing congressional majorities to zero out funding.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OPS) has awarded over 11,000 scholarships since 2004 and reports that 91 percent of OPS participants graduate from High School. The average graduation rate for D.C. public schools was 73 percent in 2017.
In his 2020 National School Choice Week Proclamation, President Donald Trump called on Congress to expand and make permanent the D.C. program, and to pass a federal tax credit to support state-based educational choice programs throughout the country.
Prior to viewing “Miss Virginia,” Wendy Gonzales-Neal, founder of My Child, My Voice talked with the audience about school choice options available in the Houston area.
While Texas has very few options for those unable to pay out of pocket, Gonzales-Neal works to educate parents about the choices that are available and about how to advocate for their children in any educational setting.
This year, My Child, My Voice will begin offering K-12 grants and scholarships designed to cover a variety of educational expenses, including tutoring, transportation, or even homeschool curriculum, in addition to tuition assistance.
Saturday’s audience included families who were using several different education options, including private schools as well as public charter, magnet, and traditional schools. Some of those present had already benefited from school choice.
Juan Vanegas III, a software engineer for Hewlett-Packard, told The Texan that he had been able to move from a traditional public school to a Houston public charter school.
“My mom was kind of freaking out because she knew I should probably go to college but the local schools weren’t that great and didn’t really prepare kids for college.”
Vanegas said his mother heard about a YES Prep Public Charter school nearby, and was able to get him in for his ninth-grade year. Although he was already behind the other students, he says he worked extra to catch up.
“I could totally tell this was not like the other schools I’d gone to,” said Vanegas.
He described a setting with stricter discipline, but also one in which teachers were very available both in and outside of the classroom and where students were specifically instructed in the college application process and taught skills necessary for success in a college setting.
After graduating from YES Prep, Vanegas earned a Bachelor of Science degree in software engineering from Iowa State University.
Professor and college adviser Bianca Huff described the charter school her son attended as one that suited his very active and outgoing personality.
“It was a mobile learning environment; they actually went to class in the Museum District and they switched from museum to museum,” explained Huff. “And because he was so active it was a great fit for him.”
Huff added that the small size of her son’s charter school allowed for a close-knit community within the City of Houston and for the involvement opportunities she desired as a parent.
“Not every school welcomes parental involvement.”
Although she had taught in Houston ISD schools through Teach for America, Huff said that she wanted a different environment for her very active son. After spending his middle school years at A+Up Charter School, Huff’s son now attends a public high school in Alief ISD, which offers multiple high school options to resident families.
Virginia Walden Ford continues to advocate for expanded school choice opportunities. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, she had been among the first students chosen to desegregate area high schools and says she sees school choice advocacy as a continuation of the civil rights movement.
In her recently released memoir, “School Choice: A Legacy to Keep,” Ford encourages parents to continue to work for education options, saying her own story is “the story of someone who refused to take no for an answer.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.