Beyond the effort was the challenge of getting different families to work together. When matters as personal as education, values and children are at stake, intense emotions are sure to follow, whether the issue is snacks (organic or not?), paint (machine washable?) or what religious holidays, if any, to acknowledge. Oh, and in many cases, forming a co-op school is illegal, because getting the required permits and passing background checks can be so prohibitively expensive and time-consuming that most co-ops simply don’t.
Our first co-op school nearly collapsed when families disagreed over how much power our teacher should have, and my husband and I had said we were done with co-ops. And yet, without a seat for my son in a public program, and feeling convinced that he needed the academic and social benefits of prekindergarten, I found myself once again e-mailing friends and surreptitiously recruiting families on the playground.
My introduction to the world of co-op education had come the previous summer at a neighborhood park, when another mom and I began chatting as our nearly-3-year-old sons zoomed their Matchbox cars around in a patch of dirt. When she asked what we were going to do about school, I told her that I had banked on one popular option, but the day I toured it the children were barely engaged in an art project, which left me unable to justify paying nearly $7,000 a year for two half-days of school a week.
She told me she was part of a group starting a co-op and that it would cost $30 a week — roughly $1,200 for the year. I could not think of a reason not to join.
She invited me to a picnic to meet the other interested families. On a sunny day, we sat on blankets as our children hunted for rocks and sticks under the shade of some trees. We got acquainted over intimate details such as where we gave birth — a number of the other women had delivered in their living rooms. I was embarrassed to admit that I had had a Caesarean section in a hospital while high on an epidural.
As different as I thought we were, we all said our children had basically never left our sides. We did not know how they would react to school, and we wanted their first experience to be in a place where they felt loved. Those women, smart, funny and warm, were exactly the type I wanted my son — and myself — around.
The dearth of high-quality preschool education for poor children has been widely reported, but there is a growing middle-class gap when it comes to prekindergarten. “Access is actually lower for middle-income people than it is for people that are poor,” said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, a research and advocacy group that supports universal prekindergarten. Those who say middle-class families should just pay for preschool themselves, Mr. Barnett said, “don’t understand how expensive it is.”
My husband and I, products of suburban public elementary schools, certainly were not prepared for the cost of early education in New York City. In our brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood, a full-time program at even the least expensive schools can cost $13,500, about what an out-of-state student pays for a year’s tuition at one of the City University of New York’s four-year colleges. And they go up from there.
An audit of the public pre-K system by the city comptroller’s office places the blame for the lack of seats squarely on the city’s Department of Education, saying that in 2010, it got enough money from the state — $29 million — to finance an additional 8,000 seats. When those funds went unspent, they had to be returned to the state. But the department said those funds would have paid for only 2.5 hours of teaching daily, making the programs impractical for working families. What city families need is full-day programs, according to the department, and the state money will not pay for those.
The lack of affordable pre-K means that middle-class children lag behind their more affluent counterparts when they get to kindergarten. More than one quarter of upper-middle-income children entering kindergarten do not know the alphabet, and almost 20 percent of middle-income children do not understand numerical sequence, according to national statistics from the advocacy group Pre-K Now, financed in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Research shows tremendous long-term benefits of schooling before kindergarten. Adults in Michigan who had attended pre-K had a 33 percent higher average income than their peers who had not, according to the 2005 update of a long-term study, The HighScope Perry Preschool Study, often cited by pre-K advocates. Despite these findings, only about 30 percent of 4-year-olds in this country are enrolled in prekindergarten.
In New York, advertisements for co-op schools pepper online parent groups once every month or two, especially in spring or early summer. But you will mostly hear about them quietly, on the playground or on play dates.
Sometimes the groups are low-key because the school is formed by a circle of friends and there is no need for other children to join. The other big reason is their questionable legality.
In New York City, child care outside the home is overseen by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The city requires a permit for any child-care setting where there are at least three children who are not each accompanied by a parent and who meet for more than five hours a week. Inside the home, the state’s Office of Children and Family Services oversees regulation for any group that meets for more than three hours a day. Getting a permit means red tape. Lots of it. There are background checks, required teaching certifications, written safety plans and site inspections.
“The health department’s primary concern with parent co-ops is that individuals responsible for providing care have not undergone criminal and child-abuse background checks,” said Chanel Caraway, a spokeswoman for the department, who added that it would shut down programs that lacked permits. “These programs rarely have made provisions for adequate care.”
Even if we could wade through the bureaucracy, we would never get a permit for our current co-op. Not all the children are immunized as the health department requires. We could not find a space to rent that had the required separate bathrooms for children and adults, or the two exits excluding fire escapes, for the children to get out to a sidewalk. We would have to hire an architect, file plans with the Department of Buildings and redo the space.