Asked for Insight, Foreign Builders Question Inequities

By Peter Schmidt — June 17, 1992 4 min read

As representatives of 17 nations gathered here this month for an unprecedented international seminar on urban school design, the conversation focused on American inequality as much as it did on European innovation.

The host, the State of Maryland, was hoping to tap into the experience of foreign school-construction officials who, for more than two decades, have been sharing ideas in the field of school construction as members of an international organization called the Programme on Educational Building.

“There is not a need for us to reinvent the wheel if someone else has already developed something which can be adapted and used,” said Yale Stenzler, executive director of Maryland’s public-school construction forum.

The participants, most of them from Europe and Australia, expressed interest in American advances in school-energy conservation, but focused most of their attention on the disparities among American schools as described during the conference by Jonathan Kozol, the author of Savage Inequalities.

Mr. Kozol’s best-selling book of last year described inequities in school funding that the former teacher said lead to increased economic and racial segregation. (See Education Week, Sept. 25,1991.)

Richard Yelland, principal administrator of the PEB, asserted that the disparities between wealthy and poor schools appear much starker in the United States than they are in much of Europe. Some European members of the PEB, he said, are afraid that similar inequities will emerge among schools in their countries as their governments begin to decentralize the control and funding of schools.

“Central control means equality of resources,” Mr. Yelland said. “When you move away from that, there may be a danger” of inequalities emerging

Crumbling Infrastructures

Maryland, which recently became the first state in the United States to join the educational-building group as an associate member, co-sponsored the seminar along with the PEB (See Education Week, April 1, 1992)

The PES is based in Paris and is part of an intergovernmental organization of free-market democracies called the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Because the U.S. Education Department and other federal agencies have little role in local school construction, the federal government had not sought membership in the FEB. The Baltimore meeting was the organization’s first to be held in the United States.

American states were given an opportunity to join the FEB late last fall, when the intergovernmental organization adopted an associate membership program to allow for the participation of American states, Canadian provinces, and other non-national government units that had not been able to participate before.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer had arranged to host the PEB seminar even before his state was accepted into the PEB late last month, asserting that the seminar “provides an excellent opportunity for us to exchange ideas and experiences.”

The participants in the conference did not attempt to agree on any formal resolutions, but merely set out to exchange ideas that could help them save money or build better schools.

Although they came from a diverse array of countries-including Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and Australia-many shared very similar problems in their urban schools.

“Cities everywhere tend to have an infrastructure--and I would include educational facilities in the infrastructure- which is aging, which is poorly maintained, which is under pressure,” Mr. Yelland said.

And the inequities Mr. Kozol observed, he said, are not unknown in countries other than the United States.

“If you are talking about urban schools, you can’t avoid talking about rich and poor,” Mr. Yelland said. “Everyone has rich and poor.”

Innovations Abroad

The United States was regarded by many of the conference participants here as being ahead of most nations in its use of educational technology and in its ability to use technology to monitor and control school operations.

In other areas, however, officials from other countries described innovations that schools here may soon copy, American participants at the conference said.

In Austria, for example, the Ministry of Education and Art is addressing the maintenance backlog that besets most urban schools by opting not to own school buildings. Instead, the ministry leases them from private owners who, under the lease agreements, must keep the buildings maintained.

In the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, where one school suffered an average of $35,000 in damage at the hands of vandals each year, local officials almost completely put a stop to the destruction by altering the layout of the school and by mounting a c0- ordinated effort by police, social-service agencies, and local residents to protect the building.

In the city of Adelaide, Australia, a national program that funds school construction has taken steps to keep the presence of a new school in an urban area from making other schools, and the surrounding neighborhood, look older and more rundown by comparison.

In the past, “by definition, each new school has made existing schools out of date and has increased the ‘facilities gap’ between the worst and newest,” according to John Mayfield, a senior executive in the Australian program, called “the Multi Function Polis.”

“Very rarely, if ever, have the designers of a new school been asked to help close this gap as part of the new school’s impact,” Mr. Mayfield said.

The new approach, designed to emphasize education as “a key factor in the urban-renewal process,” calls for the new school building to be electronically linked to other local schools so that they may reap instructional benefits from it.

Moreover, the approach calls for serious efforts to be made to involve local residents in the construction and operation of the building so that the new facility will generate jobs and benefit the entire community.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as Asked for Insight, Foreign Builders Question Inequities

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