Virginia Education Board Gives Green Light to Six Additional Lab Schools; Some Question the Speed of Approval

The Virginia Board of Education greenlit six requests recently to facilitate collaborations between students and colleges for specialized instruction amid concerns about allocating state funds to private schools and financial uncertainties as officials deliberate budgeting for the biennium budget.

Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration, which has prioritized laboratory schools since the onset of his term in 2022, saw the acceptance of twelve applications by the board on April 18, doubling from the initial six. Newly added institutions include Paul D. Camp Community College, George Mason University, Old Dominion University at Newport News and Chesapeake, and private schools Roanoke College and Emory and Henry College.

“In a politically driven move, the Governor’s administration is hastily expediting approvals for new lab schools, bypassing laws by extending state grant funding to private and two-year universities,” remarked James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association. The association emphasizes the clarity of budget stipulations in disqualifying certain institutions from receiving state grants.

According to Todd Reid, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education, in the previous two years, the department closely collaborated with community colleges, universities, school divisions, and communities on lab school proposals and applications.

Laboratory schools, akin to charter schools, provide specialized instruction in high-demand fields like teaching, computer science, and technology. They operate under the curriculum established by higher education institutions in partnership with local employers and community organizations. The selection of students is conducted through a lottery system.

Governor Youngkin, from his campaign days, has advocated for more educational alternatives, including expanding charter schools. Following his proposal to allocate $150 million to launch 20 new charter schools in the initial budget, Youngkin reaffirmed his stance on school choice during School Choice Week in January 2022.

However, the debate regarding school choice faced opposition from Democrats citing concerns of diverting funds from already underfunded public schools. Consequently, laboratory schools emerged as an alternative to traditional public education.

In a legislative move last year, lawmakers passed a bill establishing laboratory schools and allocated $100 million to aid the Virginia College Partnership Laboratory fund, intended for colleges and universities with teacher education programs. The fund encompasses planning and start-up grants along with grants for ongoing operational expenses.

Amidst disagreements over the interpretation of the lab school definition and fund allocations, the administration contends that state laws do not restrict the acceptance of applications from all institutions. Conversely, critics, including Democrats and the Virginia Education Association, raise concerns over granting funds to private colleges and challenge the administration’s efforts to redefine the establishment of College Partnership Laboratory Schools.

While the budget negotiation impasse continues, notable adjustments in the approval process for lab school applications were made by the Virginia’s College Partnership Laboratory Schools Standing Committee. The committee’s decision to streamline the review process raised varied opinions, with contrasting views on enhancing efficiency and maintaining quality outcomes.

Member Andy Rotherham elucidated that identified issues in applications could be addressed by attaching conditions before their submission for final review. The section about all lab schools adhering to anti-discrimination provisions underscores the importance of inclusive educational practices.

As the budget discussions linger and disagreements persist, the direction of lab school funding and the approval process remain contentious issues with broader implications for public education in Virginia.

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