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Youngkin’s ‘lab school design challenge’ revives an old push

Person speaks at lectern
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks at the University of Virginia during a bill-signing ceremony for his lab school proposal. (Photo courtesy of UVA)

*Megan Pauly and Ben Paviour reported this story.

About a month after his 2010 inauguration as Virginia’s first Republican governor in eight years, Bob McDonnell held a press conference. He gathered students, lawmakers and representatives from Virginia colleges and universities to make good on a campaign promise: offering “options and innovation for all Virginia schoolchildren,” according to a press release from the event.

“There is broad support for the basic principle that a child’s educational opportunities should be determined by her intellect and work ethic, not her zip code,” McDonnell said in his speech.

Last year, another Republican, Glenn Youngkin, broke a GOP losing streak with a campaign that leaned into school choice. "A student's zip code cannot determine his or her destiny," Youngkin said during the campaign.

Shortly after his inauguration, Youngkin gathered students and representatives from Virginia universities. He pressed the General Assembly to approve $150 million to help colleges and universities set up lab schools.

“I don't care whether you call them charter schools or lab schools, it's time for us to innovate in K-12 education,” Youngkin said last month.

Youngkin didn’t go into details about his “lab school design challenge.” But emails sent from Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera to university presidents ahead of the Jan. 27 kickoff event give a little more insight into the plans. The emails, which were obtained by VPM through a public records request, show Youngkin hopes to have at least 20 lab schools up and running by the 2023-24 school year.

A forthcoming request for proposal will allow colleges and universities to compete for up to $5 million in start-up costs, with applications due May 1. A panel of “key education stakeholders from across the Commonwealth” will review the plans and advise the governor, according to the documents. VPM has submitted additional public records requests to public colleges and universities to learn more about their plans.

Youngkin’s school-choice push will have to overcome many of the same obstacles that hindered McDonnell. Then, as now, a Republican governor had to negotiate with a Democratic-controlled Senate. Both governors tied lab schools with a broader push toward school choice. McDonnell made little headway in loosening state rules around approving more charter schools, and similar legislation from Youngkin quickly died in the Senate.

Key Democratic lawmakers showed more interest in McDonnell’s effort to create more university and college-affiliated lab schools. In 2012, the Republican announced a handful of grants of up to $300,000 for colleges and universities to draw up plans as part of a competitive grant process.

Several universities offered up specific plans, but the plans did not result in the creation of new lab schools.

Matthew McWilliams, assistant vice president for communications at Longwood University, said in a statement that the 2012 grant was awarded “to help Charlotte County explore a potential lab school model located there.” A press release details plans to focus on project-based learning, identifying real-world problems and finding relevant solutions in the classroom. School officials said the program would have offset learning losses created by the state’s reliance on standardized tests.

"We have let the students down by teaching to tests for so many years," said Melody Hackney, Charlotte County Public Schools superintendent at the time.

George Mason University’s “Patriot Innovation Academy” would have offered 200 students “inventive pedagogical processes with less cost and equally high or higher student results,” according to a 2013 presentation. A representative for George Mason told lawmakers last week that there wasn’t enough funding to get the academy off the ground.

The University of Virginia’s Laboratory School for Advanced Manufacturing Technologies was meant to “provide training for students in science and engineering in preparation for high-tech jobs” beginning in 2013, according to a still-active website for the school.

Bob Pianta, dean of UVA’s School of Education, told VPM News that while the lab school planning grant “didn't result in a formal laboratory school…I think it strengthened an already strong partnership and made it deeper in a particular area that I think was a benefit to the local school system and to us. So I feel like that was a very positive thing.”

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the grant funds didn’t pass through a state lab school fund established by lawmakers in 2010. Currently, there is no money in the fund.

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin promotes his school lab proposal on Jan. 27. (Photo posted by Youngkin to Facebook)

Former Republican Del. Chris Peace sponsored McDonnell’s initial lab school legislation in 2010. He worked alongside then-Del. Jeniffer McClellan (D-Richmond), now a state senator involved in negotiating the latest lab school legislation. Peace remembered “a lot of buzz and a lot of energy” that faded with time.

Some of the bills passed in 2010 “weren't as strong as our caucus or the governor would have wanted,” Peace said in an interview. “I think this governor will probably find the same outcome, simply because you've got to find compromise between the two houses. And you can still make progress even if it's incremental.”

McClellan said the last lab school push didn’t catch on because of funding. “And that's where the real fight is going to be” this year, she said.

What is a lab school, and how’s it different from a charter school?

According to state code, lab schools and charter schools are considered public schools. But currently, lab schools are only allowed to operate as teacher education programs connected to colleges and universities. Proposed legislation would remove the teacher education requirement, allowing universities to partner with local school districts to focus on career and technical education or other speciality education areas like STEM education. These new areas of focus are just suggested, not mandated.

Under current law, charter schools are not allowed to charge tuition. Lab schools are, but only for students outside of the city or county in which the school is located. Both charter schools and lab schools admit students based on a lottery. However, charter school admission is limited to students who reside in the locality where the school is located, unless it’s a regional school in which admission is limited to participating districts. Lab schools on the other hand can allow admission from students statewide, though they are supposed to prioritize admission for local students.

Currently-debated lab school and charter school legislative proposals are similar in that they would both allow entities other than local school boards to approve the creation of new schools, and run them.

Under the current lab school law, universities already have to complete a detailed application for any lab school proposal and submit it to the state board of education. A special state board of education committee – which has been dormant since 2013 and whose members previously included Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears – reviews and vets lab school applications before making recommendations to the full state board of education.

Legislation approved by the Senate would require the board to give special preference to new lab school applications from historically Black colleges and and universities as well as applications submitted in partnership with a local school district or districts. 

Once established, lab schools would be run by a governing board whose members would be appointed by the university. Senate-approved language would require lab schools to “cooperate” with “one or more local school boards” in the creation and operation of the lab schools. It would also allow local school boards to appoint one school board member to the lab school’s governing board.

What’s the debate around the lab school proposals?

Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach), who is sponsoring the House version of the lab schools legislation, says the goal of lab schools is to create learning environments where students can pick up specific technical skills or trades that prepare them to go directly from high school into the workforce - similar to programs some districts, like Chesterfield County, already manage. A prior version of his bill would’ve allowed private businesses to run lab schools; that language has been stricken.

In an interview, Davis said big regional employers like Newport News Shipbuilding could partner with a local high school to train students on high-tech equipment and provide gateways to potential jobs out of high school.

“Why wouldn't we want an HCA or a Sentera to partner with a high school and bring in state-of-the-art medical equipment so our students can get trained if they so desire in some of their classes on that equipment?” Davis said.

In a committee meeting last week, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) said that by removing the requirement that lab schools train teachers, Davis’ legislation blurs the distinction between charter and lab schools. “If we want lab schools, we want them for a specific reason,” VanValkenburg said. “I think we already have the legislation there for them.”

Existing lab school legislation is “not really being utilized,” Davis responded. “This actually redesigns a lab school.”

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin, at a bill signing event on Feb. 16. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Debate has been less contentious in the Democratic-controlled Senate. A bipartisan group of lawmakers there have reshaped a Youngkin-backed bill, which is now backed by groups ranging from the Virginia Education Association to the Virginia School Boards Association. Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill requires colleges and universities to “cooperate” with local school boards. It also specifies that students of a lab school will still be counted as students of their local public school district so that school districts don’t lose out on local, state and federal per-pupil funding. 

The Senate approved that bill in a 36-4 vote on Tuesday. McClellan, who helped negotiate the bill and herself attended a lab school attached to Virginia State University, warned the House and the governor against making substantial changes to it.

“Any amendments to turn this into a charter school [bill] will not be looked upon favorably,” McClellan said on the Senate floor.

Still, some education advocates like Carol Burris, executive director with the Network for Public Education, worry about the House and amended Senate bill’s focus on apprenticeship and career and technical education programs.

“What very often happens with a lot of CTE programs – and they keep talking about having these schools in areas of high poverty – is it becomes a tracking system, whereby poor kids and kids of color are pushed into schools where they’re learning low-level trades,” Burris said. “It closes their opportunity later on to go to college. So you have to be very, very careful with all of these programs.”

Burris is also concerned about language in the bills that could give business leaders outsized power in shaping the educational opportunities of students. The amended Senate bill would require the state to consider “the economic development needs of the region” when greenlighting lab schools.

“What would prevent them [universities] from appointing a board composed of members of the chamber of commerce or leaders and employees of a business?” Burris asked. “Giving away board seats would be especially attractive to a university that is receiving donations to fund the lab school or the university itself.”

McClellan argued the Senate bill creates strong enough oversight to prevent schools from becoming “one person’s pet project.”

How will these schools be funded?

The Senate bill’s language making it clear that local school districts won’t lose per-pupil enrollment dollars was key to getting support from groups like the Virginia Education Association.

“The district keeps the local, state and federal funding,” said Shane Riddle, government relations director for the Virginia Education Association.

VEA does not support the House bill largely because it does not make the same assurances. A number of public universities – including George Mason University, Virginia State University, the University of Virginia, William & Mary and Longwood – spoke out in support of Davis’ bill last week. Some, though, have acknowledged the need to work with local districts.

“It's got to be able to last, if you want to promote it and evaluate its impact,” UVA’s Pianta told VPM News. “So figuring that out, and also doing that in a way that doesn't reduce the resources that your local partners – the school divisions – need to continue to serve the students that they're serving…I think that's the balance that needs to be struck.”

It’s still unclear how universities would “cooperate” with local school districts under the new lab schools proposals and how the schools will ensure long-term fiscal sustainability. The lab schools will be required to prove they have a financial plan – and a building lease – to operate for at least five years.

“That's going to be a high bar to reach,” Burris said.

Mark Smith with George Mason University told lawmakers last week that “the funding wasn’t there” for a proposal to create a lab school in partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools that the university received a planning grant for under the McDonnell administration.

According to GMU’s application to the state board of education, there were “insufficient details” provided about how its partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools would work. The school also did not provide enough details about its financial plan, specifically how it would move forward in the absence of state support for an executive director position.

Youngkin is pressing the General Assembly to include $150 million in the upcoming budget to help provide start-up costs for lab school proposals.

“That's gonna be a drop in the bucket,” Burris said. “Maybe that could work for one or two schools, but it can't work for what he talked about, which is 20 schools. So somehow, the governor is going to have to convince the legislature that they're going to be pumping a lot of money into these schools.”

According to an email sent to university presidents ahead of Youngkin’s Jan. 27 event, “future annual support could come from an expanded Lab School Fund and/or from philanthropic sources (which the Governor’s office will be nurturing) as well as from local businesses and foundations.”

The Youngkin administration did not answer specific questions about vetting and funding the lab schools, but an aide said the administration was continuing to solicit feedback from stakeholders on the process. The aide said Youngkin’s goal is to grow as many partnership schools as possible that increase the academic performance of traditionally underserved students.

In an interview Tuesday, Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) said the Senate Finance Committee was still finalizing its proposed budget but is “willing to see what we can come up with” to help finance lab schools.

McClellan, however, was emphatic that she wasn’t open to using state funds for new specialty schools until the legislature fully funds existing schools.

“I want to make sure we're fully funding K-12, and we're not doing that right now,” McClellan said.