The New Face of Choice in Virginia

Virginia is one of several states where parental choice advocates are trying to pass legislation to help low-income families. The challenges in this state are unique, because Virginia has an unfortunate history with choice legislation. In the early 1960’s, as public schools were under court order to integrate, the Virginia legislature passed a choice program that was largely seen as a vehicle for white parents to pull their children from integrating schools. Understandably, several long serving members of the Virginia legislature remember these times and these motivations.

Half a century has passed, and a new generation of parents in Virginia are now looking to the legislature to once again pass a choice bill. This time, African American parents are asking for this empowerment. This recent article from the Washington Post does an excellent job describing this development.

I want to personally thank former Florida House Representative Terry Fields, and former Florida Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson for their efforts in trying to help pass this bill. The sponsor of the bill in the Virginia Assembly called looking for help in persuading members of their legislature’s Black Caucus. When the tax credit scholarship program was created by the Florida Legislature in 2001, only one Democrat—and not a single member of the Black Caucus—voted for the bill. In the 2010 session, when the legislature aggressively expanded the program, roughly half of House Democrats, a third of Senate Democrats, and a majority of the Black Caucus voted in favor. Representative Fields, who was one of the first to convert to the cause, personally went to Richmond to talk to members of the caucus. Senator Lawson, who sponsored several of the Florida bills, published this column in the Roanoke Times supporting the bill.

Although they were not successful this year, as you can see from the Washington Post article, things are changing. Perhaps next year we should send the Rev. H.K. Matthews from Pensacola, Fla., who like Virginia’s Senator Marsh is a hero of the civil rights movement. But unlike Marsh, Matthews supports parental choice for low-income families. In fact, he has called it “an extension of the old movement”. That would be quite a conversation, I imagine.

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BY John Kirtley

Chairman of Florida scholarship organization for low-income students, Vice Chair of American Federation For Children, a national parental choice organization