CRANSTON — Virginia Walden Ford scrubbed toilets, worked three jobs and broke open a piggy bank to scrape together the money she needed to send her son to private school.
“I would move heaven and hell to get it done,” Ford told an audience of several hundred parents, children and school-choice advocates in Cranston’s Park Theatre, which hosted a Jan. 20 screening of “Miss Virginia,” a film about Ford’s school-choice advocacy.
The movie shows Ford — who is played by actress Uzo Aduba, best known for her role as “Crazy Eyes” in “Orange is the New Black” — canvassing gritty neighborhoods in Washington D.C., collecting signatures and organizing parents to push for a local scholarship program. Along the way, she faces resistance from politicians, educators, lobbyists, even drug dealers who want to keep the status quo in place.
But eventually, her persistence and tenacity over a decade resulted in the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., which was passed by Congress and signed into law in 2004. The program provides private school scholarships to parents of children in grades K-12.
“We have to do what we can to make sure that our parents’ voices are heard,” Ford said during a question-and-answer session after the film.
“Learn how to use your voice, parents,” Ford added. “Learn how to speak out for your children. I did.”
The screening was intended to be a prelude to National School Choice Week, which will be held next week to underscore the efforts of parents and advocates who are working to create expanded educational opportunities for children.
“One person can make a difference, and that’s exactly what this film proves. One person can truly make a difference in the life of a child,” said Ed Bastia, the director of Rhode Island Families for School Choice.
With state legislators in attendance at the Park Cinema, Bastia said the screening was a “premiere opportunity” to show the political leadership in Rhode Island that “we have hundreds of people who gathered here this afternoon for the purposes of expressing a common thread, and that is that parents want to have the ability to decide where they are sending their kids to school.”
Of Ford’s drive to give her son opportunities, Bastia told those in attendance before the screening: “It is that same passion that we need here in the state of Rhode Island, and we’re hoping that all of you will join us in that passion.”
Rhode Island Families for School Choice has been lobbying state lawmakers in recent years to expand educational choice in the Ocean State. On Jan. 30, the group will host a Showcase of Schools advocacy event at the Rhode Island State House.
Several other states allow educational funding to “follow” the child, no matter where they attend school. But in Rhode Island, Bastia said, school choice is restricted to one’s street address unless they have the means to pay for private education.
“No matter their background, no matter where they live, no matter what their address might be, or economic status, everybody should be afforded the opportunity to choose the best (school) location for their children,” Bastia said.
In “Miss Virginia,” Ford is shown pulling her struggling teenage son out of a failing public school, where gang activity was rampant. Without knowing how she would afford the tuition, she enrolled him in a private school, where he thrived. However, unable to pay the tuition, she had to pull him out of that school for a time.
Most of the 90-minute film shows how Ford worked with like-minded parents, advocates and legislators to create a scholarship program that would help parents afford to send their kids to private schools.
“Poor kids have as much a right to learn as rich ones,” the film version of Ford says at one point. In the movie and in real life, she had to overcome significant adversity, even the murder of her son’s best friend.
“I saw kids that I loved killed or in jail,” Ford said. “I did not want that for him.”
Ford said her son, William, graduated as his high school class valedictorian. The scholarship program was enacted after her children were already adults, but Ford, who is visiting 14 cities across the country for National School Choice Week, said she was driven to help parents “do right” by their children.
“School choice will not take money away from the public schools,” said Ford, who has found herself on the opposite side of the school choice debate from the NAACP, the National Urban League and former President Barack Obama, who she said fought against school choice.
The movie shows Ford alienating her local congresswoman, who like her was black, and instead working with a white conservative congressman, played by actor Matthew Modine, to push the scholarship bill through Congress. Ford later told the audience that “you sometimes work with people you didn’t expect to.”
“I work with people who support children,” said Ford, who also signed copies of her book, “School Choice: A Legacy to Keep.” As Ford autographed a book for one admirer, Veronica Cano, a Warwick native, looked on a few feet away.
“I could definitely relate. Every parent is always trying to do good for their kids,” said Cano, whose son attended Bishop Hendricken High School. Her daughter attends La Salle Academy. Cano said she is looking to get involved in the local school choice movement.
“I want to be an advocate for the parents,” Cano said.