Friday evening I went to the Katy Independent School District's Robert R. Shaw Center for STEAM, where they were having a Science Movie Night (pdf). The science and technology policy part of Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy had put the organizers in touch with me. It was a very fun time. On a night when there were two (!) homecoming high school football games next door, the movie night drew about 80 highly engaged students. After the film, they stayed and we talked about the science of the film (what it got right and what they fudged) for another half an hour. It was a great time.
The Shaw Center is amazing - it's a fantastic space, something like 10000 sq ft of reconfigurable maker-space, with a shop, immersive labs, and it provides a home to more than one of Katy ISD's robotics teams. Frankly, this place rivals or exceeds the available undergrad lab facilities at many universities. Katy is a reasonably affluent suburb of Houston, and I was floored to learn that this great science/engineering facility was built with district money, not donations or corporate sponsorship/underwriting. This is a case where public school funding has been deliberately and consciously dedicated to providing a district-wide resource for hands-on science and engineering learning.
In a study in contrasts, my sons and I then volunteered Saturday morning at the Teachers Aid facility run by the Houston Food Bank. At the Teachers Aid facility, teachers from qualifying schools (where 70+% of the enrollment is sufficiently low-income that they qualify for free lunches) can arrive, by appointment, and pick up basic school supplies (pencils, pens, notebooks) for their students. In three hours we helped about 70 teachers who serve more than 3000 students. These are teachers who chose to come in on their own time, to get basic supplies that neither their schools nor the students themselves can afford.
It's appalling to see the divergence in basic educational opportunities between the more affluent school districts and the economically disadvantaged. We have to do better. Making sure that children, regardless of their background, have access to a good education should be a guiding principle of our society, not something viewed as pie-in-the-sky or politically tainted. It amazes me that some people seem to disagree with this.