Last night, one of the coveted seats in the First Lady’s Box was occupied by Clay Armstrong, a recent graduate of Ballou High School, part of the D.C. public school system. The Washington Post reports:

Armstrong does not shy away from describing his life at Ballou as difficult, stressful and disadvantaged. ‘It was tough, but I handled it pretty well,’ he says. ‘There were fights every day and people have gotten stabbed. People have gotten shot. There’s constantly people being knuckleheads and trying to be the class clown.’

Fortunately, as Mr. Armstrong puts it, “I was big on self-motivation.” While Armstrong’s personal achievements were impressive enough to earn him a seat in the First Lady’s Box last night, unfortunately, he is the exception that proves the rule. Despite Chancellor Rhee’s efforts to reform the D.C. public schools, the system remains one of the most troubled in the country. Students in the Nation’s Capital rank nearly dead last in academic achievement and attend classes in the most dangerous schools in the country. Armstrong’s description of violence is reinforced through statistics on the incidents of violence in D.C.P.S. Heritage’s Dan Lips and David Muhlhausen write:

During the 2007-2008 school year, 3,500 incidences of crime were reported to the MPD [Metropolitan Policy Department] from D.C. public schools. These incidents occurred during all days and times during the school year… The 912 violent incidents included one homicide. Simple assault, the most prevalent type of violent incident reported, accounted for 648 reports. In addition, there were 114 aggravated assaults.

Last night, President Obama honored Clay Armstrong as a successful product of the D.C. Public Schools – which he is by his own determination – but imagine the success many more students could achieve if given the chance to attend a safe and effective public school – not a school such as Ballou, one of the most dangerous schools in the most dangerous districts in the country.

1,715 children in the District of Columbia know exactly what that means. For them, and hundreds of others who have been recipients of scholarships through the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (D.C. OSP), their chance at a bright educational future has been realized by the opportunity to attend a safe and effective private school of their choice. If Mr. Obama wants to illustrate the best the nation’s capital can offer when it comes to educational opportunity, he could point out the dramatically increased academic achievement and safety of scholarship students, the satisfaction of scholarship parents, and the demand in the District to continue the program. But we’re not holding our breath.

Co-authored by Diane Mannina