Virginia Approves Six More Lab Schools

Gov. Youngkin’s administration has made laboratory schools a priority since he took office in 2022

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The Virginia Board of Education recently approved six applications to bring students and colleges together to offer specialized instruction amid concerns over awarding state funds to private schools and financial uncertainty as leaders discuss funding for the biennium budget.

Under Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, which has made laboratory schools a priority since the governor’s term started in 2022, the list of applications accepted by the board increased from six to 12 on April 18. The additions are 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 desperate move to advance his political agenda, the Governor’s administration is recklessly fast-tracking approvals of new lab schools and willfully breaking the law by extending state grant funding to private and two-year universities,” said James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association in a statement. “Although these institutions can launch lab schools, the budget couldn’t be more clear that they are disqualified from receiving state grant funding.”

Todd Reid, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education, said in an email that for the past two years the department has been working closely with community colleges, universities, school divisions and communities on their lab school proposals and applications.

“It is no surprise that we are seeing several applicants now ready for board consideration as many of them have been moving on similar tracks through the planning process for a similar amount of time,” said Reid.

Why lab schools?

Laboratory schools, which operate like charter schools, offer students tuition-free specialized instruction for high-demand careers like teaching, computer science and technology; higher education institutions create their own curriculum, which is reviewed by the state, in partnership with local employers and community organizations.

Students are accepted through a lottery system.

Dating back to his campaign, the governor has called for more options for students, including providing more options for students in public education by expanding charter schools.

In January 2022, Youngkin proposed in his first budget investing $150 million to kick start 20 new charter schools. During his first month in office, he signed a proclamation standing up for school choice during School Choice Week.

“We must empower parents and students with choice and innovation in K-12 public education,” Youngkin said in a statement.

But he faced opposition from Democrats on his pledge for school choice because it would siphon funding from already underfunded public schools.

By mid-February, the administration’s position changed slightly after Democrats killed efforts to add more charter schools. Laboratory schools then became Youngkin’s alternative to public schools.

A debate over language

Later that year lawmakers passed legislation establishing laboratory schools and appropriated $100 million to support the Virginia College Partnership Laboratory fund, which had been established 12 years before for colleges and universities with teacher education programs.

Out of the $100 million, $5 million was appropriated for planning grants to support eligible entities in the design of lab schools and to assist in drafting and submitting a lab school application to the board. A total $20 million was designated for initial start-up grants for approved lab schools to make one-time purchases and $75 million for per-pupil operating grants to support ongoing expenses for lab school operation and maintenance.

Chapter 2 of the 2022 Appropriation Act, which the governor signed, stipulated that a “college partnership laboratory school” means a public, nonsectarian, nonreligious school in the commonwealth established by a baccalaureate public institution of higher education.

During a Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee hearing at the time, then-Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said the language was created to keep the funding for public four-year institutions before any expansion to other institutions of higher education is considered.

“That language is not squishy,” he said. “That language is very clear.”

Since then, however, the administration and legislature have debated which applicants can receive state funds under the definition of lab schools and how much funding should be appropriated over the next two years.

Youngkin’s administration says the definition in state law does not prohibit the College Partnership Laboratory Schools Standing Committee from accepting applications from all institutions. In two April 10 letters, Deborah Love, a senior assistant attorney general, agreed, saying: “In my view, there are no legal impediments to the Standing Committee’s consideration of this application.”

Love wrote that the office reviewed earlier versions of the Roanoke and Emory & Henry Colleges applications and provided feedback to the department on March 21 and April 4, and Feb. 2 and March 5. However, the feedback the office provided to the department was not included in the committee’s public documents.

But Democrats and the Virginia Education Association are critical of the education department awarding grants to private colleges such as Ferrum College, the University of Lynchburg and Virginia Union University.

Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, said the administration attempted to rewrite the state code about establishing College Partnership Laboratory Schools prompting Democrats to make sure funding was supporting public education.

“We put a lot of safety rails on it so that so-called ‘college partnership schools’ would only be delivered through four-year institutions,” said Hashmi. “They would not be open to private actors and they would have to follow a process of approval that included local school divisions and so there has been a lot of effort on the administration’s part to bypass some of those safety rails that we put in.”

However, Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said he hopes the state will support lab schools, public and private, both of which he pointed out benefit public school children.

“I’m not looking at the school that’s providing it, I’m looking at students that are receiving it,” said Peake, who sits on the Senate Education committee.

“I think we need to take new looks at how we are educating our children and the opportunities we’re giving our children, and that is especially the case after the learning shortfalls we have had since Governor [Ralph] Northam shut down our schools during the coronavirus,” Peake said. “When you look at the learning loss our students are facing since the coronavirus shut down, we’ve got to try everything possible to get our kids caught back up and if it’s lab schools, I think it’s a great opportunity.”


Within the past two years, the Board of Education has accepted six lab school applications: Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University, the University of Mary Washington, the University of Virginia, and Germanna and Mountain Gateway Community Colleges.

VCU’s partnership with CodeRVA Regional High School was the first application approved by the Board of Education and awarded $6 million. It opened in January. While VCU is a public university, the decision was criticized because it supported a regional school that was already “fully funded” and “fully staffed.”

Fedderman of the Virginia Education Association, suggested the money could have gone instead to neighboring Overby-Sheppard Elementary School in Richmond.

“Virginia is one of the richest states in the country, yet we spend less per student in state funding than states with fewer resources, such as Alabama and West Virginia,” Fedderman said in a statement at the time. “Showering one school with huge amounts of state and local funding might look nice and distract some of the public, but parents of kids in other public schools want and deserve adequate funding for their students, too. Let’s work to fund all our public schools like we fund our lone lab school.”

Democrats reiterated in budget amendments during the recent legislative session that public funds for lab schools should only be used for public four-year institutions. Youngkin and lawmakers have gone back and forth over whether to include funding for lab schools in the two year budget.

After trading proposals, which included Youngkin proposing $60 million and the General Assembly offering no investments for lab schools, the two are at a stalemate before the current budget ends on July 1.

Change in process

The budget negotiations and disagreements on language are not the only issues plaguing lab school decisions.

On April 11, Virginia’s College Partnership Laboratory Schools Standing Committee voted 3-2 to adjust the process for approving applications by cutting the number of reviews from two to one before submitting them to the Board of Education for final review. While some members said the move would help, others expressed concern after the process was created a year ago.

Board member Andy Rotherham, a Youngkin appointee on the committee, said the move would streamline the process for applicants to meet with reviewers and travel to Richmond.

“I think we just need to continue to try to refine it [the process] to maintain the highest bar of quality, but also think about how can we do it as efficiently as possible,” Rotherham said at the meeting.

He said if the committee finds any issues with applications, it has options including sending applications to the board with conditions.

Some of the notable elements reviewed in applications is a school’s plan for serving all students including those with disabilities, English language learners, and students who are academically behind or gifted.

According to state law, all lab schools are subject to “all federal and state and constitutional provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, ancestry, or need for special education services.”

Applications must also include plans for student recruitment and enrollment, the school’s financial plan and policies, including financial controls and audit requirements; and assurances that the college partnership laboratory school is nonreligious in its programs, admission policies, employment practices.

“Fundamentally the accountability for actually authorizing these schools lies with the nine members of the state board who it’s incumbent on them to look at everything including the public comment which is still provided in this process,” Rotherham said

Board Vice President Bill Hansen, a Youngkin appointee, also supported the change.

“I think it’s the evolution of where we are, where the Department of Education is, where we are in the process and I just really don’t have any concerns whatsoever that we’re going to be stepping away from quality outcomes of what we’re all seeking to achieve here,” Hansen said during the meeting.

However, Joan Wodiska and Pam Moran, committee chair and vice chair, voted against changing the process.

Moran asked the committee to consider keeping a second review on a case by case basis, but no action was taken.

“I don’t want to vote ‘no,’” said Moran. “I’d like to be able to have these proposals get the support and go through the process if they need to, and [if] there are some that are coming to us that we may say … ‘let’s send it on,’ I’m good with that;  but I don’t want to leave out a piece of the process that gets people something that they need to then get back to the place where they can go to the state board.”

Wodiska added that she believes having a first and final review is necessary, a historical practice done by the state board.

“The role of a standing committee as charged under law is to set a process to review applications,” Wodiska said. “That is our role, that is our charge. There are millions of taxpayer dollars at stake in these conversations, but most importantly is the welfare of the students and educational professionals that will be at these lab schools.”

House Education Committee Chair Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who represents a part of Roanoke City near Roanoke College, said he considered the board’s decision presumptive when the budget is not completed and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that Virginia has been underfunding public education for a number of years.

“Lab schools in and of themselves are not a bad idea,” Rasoul said. “The question is, are we going to be diverting funds when we just had a massive report from JLARC, saying how underfunded our public schools are, given that funds for new projects like this seem to divert away from needing to pay our teachers at the national average mental health resources and other critical services.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Samantha Willis for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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