The real life Miss Virginia is Virginia Walden Ford, a prominent black D.C. activist who in the late 1990s and 2000s pushed for vouchers while many Democratic leaders in the District opposed the program.
The villain in the movie: a fictitious D.C. congresswoman who appears to be based on Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), a longtime opponent of the voucher program, which provides low-income families money to attend private schools.
Walden Ford — played by “Orange is the New Black” star Uzo Aduba — and the filmmakers insist this is a human tale, not a political one. But the independent movie’s debut this month comes as the Trump administration is pushing for an expansion of vouchers and as Democratic presidential candidates debate school choice.
The film’s production company, Moving Picture Institute, has the financial backing of the Mercer Family Foundation, a powerhouse donor to Republicans, according to foundation tax filings. Tax records also show that Rebekah Mercer, listed as director of the family foundation, previously served on the production company’s board. The president of the production company, Rob Pfaltzgraff, said in a statement that donors, including the Mercer Family Foundation, did not have influence over the content of the film.
“This is not political,” Walden Ford said in an interview. “When we were marching in the halls of Congress, the only policy we thought about is how we can get better options for our kids.”
When the movie begins in 2003, Walden Ford’s youngest son is struggling in a neighborhood public high school, where violence is rampant and learning is limited. The single mother fears for her son and wants to enroll him in a private school that she cannot afford. As she struggles to scrape together money for tuition while her son becomes more disengaged from school and drawn to the streets, she learns of a voucher programs that exists in other jurisdictions. She rallies residents to champion the program in the District.
When the congresswoman declines to support her efforts, Walden Ford and other parents team up with a white lawmaker not from D.C. who succeeds in pushing through the legislation.
“I am thrilled this bill will create a scholarship fund so low-income parents like Virginia can send their kids to school so they can break free from the shackles of poverty,” the fictitious congressman, Cliff Williams, says at a news conference in the film announcing passage of the bill.
Critics have said in the past that the initiative is problematic because most students using vouchers in the District attend religious schools. Many D.C. students with vouchers go to schools where nearly all students are voucher recipients, and some are enrolled in campuses that are not accredited, according to a 2012 Washington Post analysis.
A 2017 U.S. Education Department study found that D.C. voucher students performed worse on standardized tests within a year after entering private schools than peers who did not participate. But a federal study also found that parents who use vouchers are more likely to perceive their child’s school as “very safe” and that graduation rates were higher among recipients.
More than a dozen states have voucher programs, but the District is unique because Congress can enact a voucher program even if local lawmakers do not want it. The city is home to the nation’s only federally funded voucher program, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, which sends more than 1,000 students to private schools.
Former House speaker John A. Boehner was a major booster of D.C.’s voucher program, citing his scholarship to attend a Catholic high school as a life-changing opportunity. The voucher program is now tied to federal funding for D.C.’s public schools. In 2017, a majority of the D.C. Council asked Congress to phase out the voucher program.
Norton declined to comment on the film because she had not seen it.
“Norton is disappointed that the bill allows new students to enroll in the private school voucher program Congress imposed on the District, but is pleased the bill requires the participating private schools to comply with federal civil rights laws,” Norton wrote in a June statement about the program. “The program has failed to improve academic achievement, as measured by math and reading test scores.”
R.J. Daniel Hanna, the film’s director, said Walden Ford’s story drew him to the movie — not the subject of vouchers. The movie is about a woman who started a movement, he said, an inspiring tale about the power of parents to advocate for their children. Hanna said he focused on parents and did not devote significant time to the arguments against vouchers or interview Norton and other local politicians for the film.
“We were trying to tell a really great human story about one woman who sparked change,” Hanna said. “It really is about keeping it to the human story, about a mother and a son.”
“Miss Virginia” filmed for four days in D.C., getting background shots of rowhouses, streets and Capitol Hill.
Walden Ford said the film was true to her story and to the struggles and disappointment she faced as she searched for an adequate education for her son.
“They approached me with the concept, and I thought it was a way to honor the legislative fight,” Walden Ford said. “This is a story that belongs to parents all over the country.”
After Congress approved the voucher program, Walden Ford continued advocating for expanded school choice in the District through the group she founded, D.C. Parents for School Choice. She is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank where she has written about her fight for vouchers. She now lives part-time in her home state of Arkansas, where she continues fighting for school choice.
Walden Ford said her son’s story shows how effective vouchers can be. He graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School in the District and served in the military. He works for UPS and recently purchased his first home in the Washington area.
“Miss Virginia” is scheduled to be released Friday and will show in about a dozen theaters across the country. It will also be available on iTunes and video on demand.