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Who's behind D.C.'s pro-voucher group?
(Published October 6, 2003)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER
Staff Writer

Whoís behind D.C. Parents for School Choice, the charitable organization that has been running ads attacking prominent members of the U.S. Senate for opposing a controversial school voucher plan for the District?

"Why is that important?" Virginia Walden-Ford, the groupís executive director, responded last week to requests from The Common Denominator for information about the organizationís leaders and contributors.

Walden-Ford refused to identify her groupís board of directors, information which 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations are required by Internal Revenue Service regulations to make public upon request. Walden-Ford also refused to provide a copy of the groupís IRS Form 990, which includes information about the organizationís financial receipts and expenditures.

IRS spokesman Sam Serio confirmed that D.C. Parents for School Choice is a 501(c)(3) organization but was unable to immediately provide copies of the groupís required federal reports.

Walden-Ford, a mother of three who lives in Northeast Washington, has recently become prominent in television, newspaper and bulk-mail ads, purportedly representing thousands of local parents who support legislation that would allow up to 2,000 D.C. school children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

One ad spot, run on Sept. 4 during ABCís "Good Morning America," featured images comparing Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to notorious segregationist Bull Connor. A full-page ad in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Sept. 2 compared Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to George Wallace in his segregationist days as Alabama governor. Walden-Fordís group also launched an ad campaign in Illinois on Oct. 1 with full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Defender that compare Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to Wallace and attack the Chicago teachersí union for opposing vouchers.

During a telephone interview on Oct. 2, Walden-Ford told The Common Denominator that her organizationís grant funding from the Bradley Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and Children First America "ended a year ago."

"We donít have any funding," she said, adding that she is now running the organization out of her home on Hawaii Avenue NE. "This organization is kind of at the end. When we lost the funding, we kind of lost our organization."

Walden-Ford said her group "got contributions to pay for a couple of ads that are based on information that we felt needed to get out to the public." She identified those ads as the Kennedy and Landrieu ads. When questioned about the Chicago ads, Walden-Ford said she "forgot about those."

She said the American Education Reform Foundation, which is paying for pro-voucher TV and radio ads in the District featuring Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, is not financing her groupís ads, but she would identify the source of funding only as "private donors."

"Iím fortunate that theyíre willing to pay for it, but I wrote the checks [to pay the ad bills]," she said.

While the source of D.C. Parents for School Choiceís advertising dollars remains unclear, Walden-Fordís organization appears to be getting some high-powered volunteer help that can be identified.

The Institute for Justice, a downtown D.C. law firm that likens itself as an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union, has been providing Walden-Ford with help on press releases, according to the firmís communicationís director, Lisa Knepper.

"Thereís no sort of official connection Ö we donít represent them," Knepper said of her firmís relationship with Walden-Fordís group. "One of the things I do is sort of help them on press releases. I guess you could say Iím a volunteer. I believe in what sheís doing."

Knepper said she is not a D.C. parent.

D.C. Parents for School Choice also is getting assistance with its advertising and press relations from a downtown D.C. agency called Advocacy Ink, which placed a press release on the PR Newswire Oct. 1 to announce the launch of the nonprofit groupís Chicago advertising campaign. "More ad buys are planned in the states of other Senators blocking the Washington, D.C. School Voucher bill," according to the press release.

Copies of the advertisements placed in the Chicago newspapers can be downloaded from Advocacy Inkís web site. The ads placed in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, which attack the Chicago teachersí union, contain an incorrect address for Walden-Fordís group.

Audrey Mullen, an Advocacy Ink partner who is D.C. Parents for School Choiceís press contact for the Chicago ad campaign, is among 71 D.C. signers of an online "Proclamation for the Separation of School and State." The proclamation, promoted by a group called the Separation of School and State Alliance, advocates "ending government involvement in education." Many of the D.C. signers used an office address, rather than a residential one.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator