Co-Opted: Why some co-op preschools work better in theory. The pros and cons of co-ops on


Why some co-op preschools work better in theory.

by Sasha Brown-Worsham

August 26, 2009

When I began to hunt for preschools near my home in Boston, I quickly discovered that a good urban preschool often costs more than a state school’s tuition, has a waiting list longer than War and Peace and makes its selection based on a series of strange prerequisites that often seem both mysterious and arbitrary. One, for instance, included questions in the application asking when my two-year-old learned her letters and whether she had any special talents to contribute to the class (which, by the way, she does: singing almost everything she says to the tune of “Baa Baa Black Sheep”). So when i learned about the co-op option – a preschool run entirely by parents, sometimes with the help of a hired professional, all for a fraction of the cost of a traditional preschool – I was sold. I envisioned my fellow co-op parents being likeminded happy types who would plan innovative curriculums, use environmentally sound cleaning products and provide organic snacks.

But, like Communism before it, the reality of the co-op is often divorced entirely from the fantasy.

Callie Lambeth, a mother of two from California and the President of Paso Robles Cooperative Preschool, remembers being blindsided when they first joined two years ago.

“I picked the school because it was the cheapest tuition I could find,” says Lambeth. “I knew nothing about the school and its philosophies, and was completely overwhelmed at the Orientation Meeting. Fines, fundraising, parent workdays, mandatory clean-up days. I was putting my three-year-old in preschool, for crying out loud, not college.”

The cost is what draws people and makes them overlook the less appealing factors. At Paso Robles, for instance, three days of preschool costs $200 a week (for parents who participate in fundraising). Compare that to $500 a week for the same amount of care at a private preschool. Last spring, my own daughter was in a full co-op (parents only, no professionals) and it was even less expensive – three days a week (including one work day) for roughly $100 a week – since we did not hire professionals.

The cost, however, does not include the fines: $50 for missing a day of work; $100 for missing a clean-up; $25 for missing a meeting. And though they are enforced on an honor system (there was no contract in my case), it is hard to escape without major guilt, at least. “It’s only cheaper if you do all the work,” Lambeth agrees “If you end up paying a ton of fines, it costs more than regular preschool.”

Fines were only the beginning of the bureaucracy I saw during the three months my daughter was at the co-op. Some rules – all organic snacks; no crackers before fruit; only one little sibling per day – were enforced stringently. Others – children must be able to walk up and down stairs unassisted; there can be no “personal toys”; children should not slide on their bellies – were less so.

One of the problems with the co-op system is that very often, the parents will have very different visions for how the school is to be run. For instance, one parent interpreted the schools’ eighteen-months-to-three-years age range to apply to children who were eighteen months by September. Another parent believed a child could enter at eighteen months regardless of birthdate. With no professional director to sort these things out, something as seemingly petty as this causes squabbles and confusion galore.

In addition, if every involved parent serves as both a board member and a teacher, some can take their “power” a little too seriously, says Cindy Rzasa Bess, PhD, a developmental psychologist and education consultant who directed a co-op preschool for several years. In my case, I was called on the carpet by the “Health and Safety Officer” at my daughter’s co-op for bringing my daughter in “sick,” even though her elevated temperature did not even count as a fever according to the co-op’s own rules. This mother saw an opportunity for sanctimony and used it.