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School Choice Goes to the Movies: The Sequel!

Just in time for Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to unveil her education plan severely limiting school options for low-income families, and the release of 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores in math and English (spoiler: New York City stayed flat overall and went down in math), comes Miss Virginia, a movie about a mom who stood up and said:

Education is the civil rights issue of our time. We, the people, have failed in our moral and legal obligation to provide quality education to every American child…. No child should be cut off from education. Poor kids have as much of a right to learn as rich ones.

Miss Virginia, currently playing in theaters and streaming on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime and more, is “inspired by the true story” of Virginia Walden Ford. As played by Uzo Aduba, she is a single mother living in Washington, DC in the late 1990s. When her son (William in real-life, James in the movie) cuts classes due to a combination of bullying and indifference, Virginia withdraws him from the public school where an unhelpful principal tells her, “There are 1,200 students in this school. I have to focus on the ones that want to be here,” and enrolls him in a private institution that makes James excited about learning.

For those who miss the message, on his first day in his new science class, James’ teacher offers a lesson on Venus Flytraps who needed to find a way to survive and thrive when the soil they were growing in proved poor, so they evolved to get their vital nutrients in other ways.

But symbolism-heavy private schools don’t come cheap. Virginia takes a second job to cover the tuition, scrubbing floors and toilets at the office of Congresswoman Lorraine Townsend (Aunjanue Ellis).  

Virginia tells her new boss, “I wanted to give (my son) more opportunities like your daughter has.”

But she is unable to make the payments and is forced to take James out after a few months.

When Virginia learns that her Congresswoman is actively working with big donors who want to keep children like James from accessing educational opportunities via a private school voucher program, she gets fired up, lecturing a City Council meeting:

Telling us we need to wait, be patient and eventually change will come… my son can’t wait. He needs change today. Not tomorrow, not next week, and definitely not eventually. We’ve been waiting. For decades. And I’m done. And you know what else I’m done with? I’m done with this lie about money. They say to us the schools are bad because they’re poor…. But you know what? The school I took my son out from, now that school costs $7000 a year…. But did you know that this public school gets twice as much money per child per year? What if your kids could just go to school and sit down and study? Just get out of this hopeless cycle that we live in?

Another mom asks: Can you get my son into a school where they don’t beat him up for being bright?

While a third relays: My kids, they’re falling behind, and the school won’t help. They act like I’m the problem…. My daughter should have a choice, but she doesn’t.

It would be nice to say that, like anthropomorphic animated animals, indestructible heroes, and good guys always winning, these things only happen in the movies.

But that, unfortunately, is not the case.

Less than a month ago, I covered a Community Education Council 3 meeting where parents were told that their support for opening an “Intentionally Integrated” charter middle school would “render harm to the ‘government ordered voluntary desegregation’ efforts” already underway. Kimberly Watkins and Kristen E. Berger, CEC3 President and First Vice President, stuck with the script and urged families to be patient, give them a chance, change would come eventually. And then they walked out. 

But, first, they brought up the issue of money. What each individual student is worth to their public school. What every family “owes” the public school system – whether or not that system is proving beneficial for their child. 

As Miss Virginia’s principal tars those looking to explore other options, “She wants to steal what little we do have!” 

Which is pretty much what NYC politicians in all boroughs say.

But Miss Virginia won’t back down: 

Young people shouldn’t have to wait while we take the long, slow walk to lift up our public schools.

Virginia Walden Ford’s dream came true in 2003, when President Geroge W. Bush signed the DC School Choice Incentive Act.

Six years later, in 2009, President Barack Obama’s budget called for phasing out the program and cutting its funding, which left the Act to expire.

In 2011, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, sponsored by John Boehner and Joe Lieberman, restored the lost money.

Today, 91 percent of children participating in Washington DC’s school voucher program are African-American and Hispanic, and the average income for those families is less than $24,000 per year. 

Miss Virginia won the battle. 

The war goes on.

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