Origins of the co-operative school
One of my college courses included learning about various models of early childhood education. My classmates were mostly public school teachers earning continuing education credits. For several classes running we listened as guest speakers detailed the theory and practice of such approaches as Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Hi/Scope. When it came time to learn about the cooperative model we heard from our own Val Donato (former director of the North Seattle Community College Parent Education Department).
Val explained how the parents in a co-op own and operate the school at every level from the executive to the janitorial, with the teacher being the sole paid employee. We learned that every parent spends one day a week serving as an assistant teacher, bringing the adult to child ratio up to the incredible 1:2 or 1:3 category. She taught us about the benefits of teachers and parents working so closely together, both inside and outside the classroom, to create a unique learning experience for each child.
There was the usual polite applause when Val wrapped up, but the moment she left the classroom, there was an audible gasp.
“I could never do that!” said one teacher.
“It would be like having 20 bosses!” said another.
There was general agreement that the whole idea was crazy.
At this point, I’d only experienced co-op as a parent, although I’d already signed my contract to teach at Woodland Park the following year. Needless to say, I was cowed into a doubtful silence. Twenty bosses did kind of sound like a nightmare.
I’ve now spent the last 13 years in cooperative preschool classrooms, both as a parent and teacher. I’ve never once felt like I had 20 bosses. Instead, I’ve always felt like I had 20 colleagues in the form of dedicated assistant teachers. And these are not just any teachers; these are teachers bringing mountains of love into the classroom.
Of course, at one level it’s true that I have 20 bosses. It’s the entire parent community that hires and fires. It’s the entire parent community that evaluates, and compensates. And it’s the entire parent community that observes and participates in every activity that takes place within the four walls of the school. (And while I hope it’s not true, it’s just possible that I’m a better teacher because of all those parent eyes on me all the time!)
On a day-to-day basis, however, these same “bosses” work in the classroom under my supervision. They are in the trenches with me, sharing the work, rewards and challenges. These are not just the parents of my students; they are my colleagues, allies and friends.
It’s the kind of dynamic that can only be found in organizations that operate on cooperative principles.
The Cooperative Model vs. Capitalism
When I look at my own relationships with institutions, the best ones are with cooperatives. I’m a Puget Consumer Cooperative grocery shopper. I buy my outdoor gear at the REI cooperative. My neighborhood Ace Hardware is my go-to store for our workbench supplies. I received the best health care of my life as a member of the Group Health Cooperative (where my daughter was born). I love my credit union. These are all variations on the co-op theme, but none are so pure as our cooperative preschool.
As we’re now witnessing the ugly downside brought on by 30+ years of increasingly unfettered capitalism and its almost religious quest for profit, it’s hard not to imagine how the cooperative model could be advantageously applied to other institutions.
For instance, when the “customers” own the business, it stands to reason that they will focus like a laser on fulfilling their own wants and needs. When stockholders are the owners, the focus is on the customers only as far as it feeds profits. When applied to healthcare the capitalist model places profit over healthcare. In education it places profit over education. In government it places profit over governing. That's simply the way the for-profit model works and companies have been successfully sued by stockholders when they don't place profit first.
When the “employees” hire, fire and pay their own “bosses”, the actual performance of management isn’t hidden in the puffy language of annual reports or stockholder meetings. Performance is totally transparent, found right there in the daily reality of how the institution functions. Capitalist owners tend to primarily consult this quarter’s bottom line when evaluating their managers, while cooperative owners (incentivized by the desire to continue to have their jobs well into the future) tend to focus on the long-term health of the institution.
When capitalist bosses hire, fire and pay employees, we ultimately wind up with an adversarial relationship in which labor becomes just another expense to cut because management is incentivized to look to the next dividend checks. When compensation is a matter of cooperative negotiation, “labor” becomes an asset or even (dare I suggest it?) human beings instead of mere resources. And, of course, there is no better way to rein-in exorbitant “executive” pay.
I’m not saying I’m against capitalism, but I do believe that the dangers of unregulated capitalism are manifest and that not every institution benefits from the capitalist model. What I am saying is that when we take the imperatives of profit and obscene executive pay off the table, the cooperative model can in many cases be a far more efficient and effective means for satisfying “demand.”
But enough of “radical” economics...
The best thing about a cooperative is what it does to our relationship with institutions and the people we find there. Traditional institutions are about people doing things to and for other people. Cooperative institutions are about people doing things with each other.
I understand the reaction of those public school teachers. They are providing education to children and for parents. In their lives a parent’s request to “talk” is all too often a cause for dread. Who doesn’t feel anxious about being called into their boss’s office? As a co-op teacher, on the other hand, I talk with my colleague-bosses every day, work with them, supervise them, and get supervised by them. But it’s much more than that. I also goof around with them. I share joys and sorrows with them. We’re friends and colleagues. We’re a real community in a way that other ECE models make far more challenging.
I love our Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool and I know I’m not the only one. Families return year-after-year, child-after-child, choosing time and again to be part of what I only half-jokingly refer to as our little communist society.
I probably don’t want a cooperative making my televisions or washing machines and I’m not deaf to the argument that competition and the prospects of great wealth can lead a certain type of high-achiever to innovation and economic growth. On the other hand, I’ve seen how cooperation within the context of a committed, loving preschool community consistently “turns a profit” in the coin of confident, well-prepared kindergarteners. That’s what we come together to do.
And there’s nothing crazy about that.
Tom Hobson is a Preschool teacher, writer, speaker, artist and author