This blog post originally appeared on the Education Innovating blog run by Education Evolving from 2010 to 2011. It has now been merged into our main blog.
Editor’s note: Each Friday we feature guest bloggers that are involved in rethinking what is possible with schooling and the education system.
Doug Thomas is Executive Director at EdVisions, a cooperative and nonprofit that serves teacher-run schools throughout the United States
Lots of folks ask about the EdVisions Cooperative—why it started, how it started and whether it really helps to ‘professionalize’ teaching. Most days I think more about how to start new schools than about how to start a teacher professional practice but I do think there is something significant about using the new schools opportunities to change the teaching profession from a labor-industrial model to a professional practice. I don’t think we can get the schools we want without significantly improve the job of teaching.
As we began to create the Minnesota New Country School back in 1993, Ted Kolderie was the first to suggest we organize the teachers differently, in order for them to act more like owners and less like employees and to rearrange the notion that teachers always had to serve at the will of administrators (a boss). He thought a cooperative might be the best legal entity as cooperatives were well accepted in rural Minnesota and there was an equity notion about co-ops that seemed to make sense for educators. Dan Mott provided legal counsel for the effort and after some convincing of the New Country teachers, we set out to create the first teacher cooperative in the nation.
EdVisions would now provide services to a site team of its teachers at New Country. It would be designed to do four major things to start with: provide payroll services as the teachers would be employees/partners of the co-op and not employees of the school, second, it would arrange for benefits cooperatively purchased as a small group, third, EdVisions would be the provider of professional development opportunities and services, and fourth, it would create a vehicle for those members who wanted to become entrepreneurial, possibly opening the opportunity for them to provide consulting services.
After 17 years, these functions are still the major focus of the Cooperative, albeit there are now a dozen charter school groups and over 225 individual members organized into site teams to serve each school. In addition, there is a nonprofit organization, EdVisions Schools that has grown up alongside the Co-op and received several million dollars in grants to replicate the New Country School and the Co-op model. The Cooperative structure still seems to be a favorable way to organize this professional association although we’ve learned some lessons along the way. Despite the goal of professional association, teachers still don’t have all that much extra time so keeping the mission simple and straightforward without a lot of bureaucracy is very important. Also, having a well-organized limited menu of services is crucial. Don’t try to do too much. And the most important feature of a cooperative, equal involvement from the members, is critical to sustaining the organization. Everyone needs to feel the organization is theirs and that the services are valuable and necessary.
My perspective is that legal organization of a teacher professional practice is an absolute necessity. Without it, I don’t see how the commitment can be maintained or how the functions can be carried out. We still believe the cooperative model (as compared to an LLC, nonprofit, or an informally organized group of teachers) is best as it allows for some flexibility and for the entrepreneurship incentive. I also advocate for teachers to organize separate nonprofits non-profits in order to seek grant funds for professional development.
We’ve been very happy with how our Cooperative has developed and expanded over the years. We encourage teachers everywhere to consider organizing in similar small organizations.
Doug may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.