The Houston Experiment
City Journal's Nicole Gelinas has written a very interesting in-depth piece titled "Houston's Noble Experiment: Can good government uplift the New Orleans evacuees whom bad government harmed?"
The entire article is well-worth reading, but I'll excerpt one part of particular interest to me: public education:
Stasia Marie Davis, who evacuated from New Orleans East and was about to start work as a teacher’s aide when I spoke to her, says that her two high school–age daughters had been in gifted programs at a New Orleans public school but “are struggling to keep up” at Houston’s Westfield High School. “In New Orleans, they are preparing them for the tourism business. Here, they are preparing them for college,” she told me.
Ariane Daughtry, a Catholic Charities caseworker from New Orleans now working with evacuees, notes that she paid $250 a month in New Orleans to send her son to private school, but in Houston he’s thriving, even playing the violin, at a public school where nearly all the kids can read and do math at grade level. William Coleman, who has custody of his grandchildren, told me that the Houston school the children attend call the house if the kids are late or absent: “They didn’t do that in New Orleans,” he marveled.
Teachers as well as parents are pleased. Before evacuating, Warren Johnson taught English at McDonogh #35, one of New Orleans’s few high-performing public schools. Now teaching at Yates High School in Houston, he’s thrilled with the quality of resources and plans to stay. He notes that the school is well managed and has good security, and the administration works efficiently and “without so much politics.” “I hate to talk bad about my city,” he says, but some things in Houston “are a bit more logical.”
Texas and Houston have already determined that evacuee students badly trail their new peers when it comes to basic skills. Just one measure of the shocking disparity: on a standardized state reading test administered in February, 89 percent of Texas third-graders could read at grade level, while only 59 percent of evacuee students, most from New Orleans, could do the same. In fifth-grade reading, 80 percent of Texas students passed, while more than half of evacuee students failed. (Texas has not yet released reading scores at the school-district level, but Houston students’ reading scores have been nearly identical to those of their peers across Texas in the past.) The mayor took note early on of the challenge that New Orleans students face in Texas schools, and used a federal grant to help schools hire 100 tutors and teachers from New Orleans beginning last fall to give evacuee children extra help.
Houston’s openhearted outreach to New Orleans in its hour of need was an extraordinary gesture, and it saved lives. But Houston will have accomplished a truly heroic task if it can redeem the undereducated, underpoliced, and unmarried underclass that made New Orleans a disaster long before Katrina.
Houston approaches this task with a crucial advantage: its leaders and citizens don’t instinctively see big government as the solution—only good government.