Friday, August 21, 2009

Co-ops, citizen action, and lifelong learning

A few Senate Democrats, hoping for a compromise on health care reform, have floated the idea of health care co-ops instead of a "public option" as a counter-balance to for-profit health insurance. The notion has received a good deal of mockery, from scions of the right and the left.

Skepticism from Mike Leavitt (right) and Paul Krugman (left) is a sure sign that there is something worth paying attention to in the proposal. Timothy Egan's op-ed on successful co-ops past and present suggests why. It turns out that co-ops can bridge the right and the left in a way that other options can't.

The appeal of co-ops is three-fold: 1. co-ops are democratic in purpose and function, relying as they do on joint ownership by their members, a notion that appeals to the left; 2. co-ops are essentially businesses. They aim to buy from and sell to people who often become part-owners of the organization. Ownership is an idea the gets most traction from the right today. 3. historically they have been created to resist the power of big businesses and/or big government, especially when the "bigs" work together. Here is a notion that appeals to both right and left.

What does this have to do with education? A couple of things. In the first flowering of co-ops (during the populist era), co-ops were part of a broader movement that included a powerful effort to extend education to people of all ages. The grange movement built halls throughout rural America. There, traveling speakers taught residents about agriculture, politics, and advocacy. Much the same ethos drove reformers like Jane Addams whose settlement houses extended the idea of educational co-ops to include college students and early forms of service-learning and community-based research.

Second, educational co-ops exist all over the place today. They are mostly hidden from discussions about education, but pre-schools across the country use this model to meet the needs of families and ensure some input from parents. Meanwhile, community education efforts maintain much of the same educational focus as early educational efforts among grangers and settlement houses did.

Given the routine complaints about how public schools and higher ed fail to serve the needs and wishes of parents and communities; and the widespread skepticism of government's role in improving education, perhaps educational co-ops ought to get another look. Their focus on life-long learning and governance by stakeholders, coupled with their place in-between government power and the power of big business might add much to our effort to improve not just schooling but education.

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