RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to expand alternatives to traditional public schools in Virginia and at least one Democrat is “pretty sure” the push will be included in the final budget in some form. 

Youngkin has called CodeRVA, a computer science-focused high school serving Central Virginia, a model for his plan to create 20 new “innovation lab schools” during his term.  For that to happen, a divided General Assembly has to reach an agreement on a controversial bill and back it up with funding. 

“We all know that the one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work,” Youngkin said in a press conference last week. “We’ll foster innovation in all education environments and build on the example of excellence that currently exists in many places across the Commonwealth.”

Karthik Arumilli is a success story of educational innovation. The 10th grader is well on his way to a career in coding. 

“Even when we’re in history or math class, there is always a way that they incorporate coding into it,” Arumilli

Arumilli said that specialized learning at CodeRVA allowed him to develop his passion and hone his skills sooner than he would’ve at a traditional public school. He said the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree in high school and participate in internships also drew him to the program.  He hopes it will give him a leg up in a growing field. 

“I plan to use the associate’s degree to graduate from college two years early,” Arumilli said. “I want to be a manager for a tech company such as Capital One, Google or Microsoft.”

CodeRVA’s Executive Director Dr. Kume Goranson said they’re governed and funded by 15 public school divisions, with additional financial support from private businesses and nonprofits. She said they use a lottery system to fill slots and they currently serve more than 300 students. 

“It’s the only one of its kind in the Commonwealth,” Goranson said. “We’re the only school that is publicly open but is not currently state-funded and so we’re hoping as part of a possible lab schools expansion to receive state funding and become the model for lab schools to be replicated across the Commonwealth.”

Buy-in from local school boards is a sticking point for Senate Democrats in the debate over a bill to expand existing state law on lab schools. It was included in a compromise, which won broad bipartisan support, but has yet to fully pass due to disagreement from House Republicans.

“We don’t see ourselves in competition with public schools. We are a public school, and we’re proud to partner with so many school divisions. Personally, I would like it to be an ‘and’ not an ‘or,’” Goranson said.

The compromise allows public colleges and universities, as well as certain non-profit institutions, to collaborate with local school divisions to set up specialty programs for subjects like STEM, computer science and language arts.

But Democrats like Delegate Shelly Simonds are concerned that the bill backed by House Republicans could bypass local school boards in the decision-making process. She also fears accountability measures like standardized testing will be excluded and teacher certification requirements won’t be prioritized. 

“Money in the budget for innovation like this would be a really good thing but it has to be done right,” Simonds said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I wasn’t getting the assurances I needed.”

The budget crafted by House Republicans includes $150 million for a grant program to kick start new lab schools. Senate Democrats left that out of their spending plan altogether.  

Closed-door negotiations to iron out those differences have been ongoing for weeks but a deal appears near. The General Assembly is being called back to Richmond on June 1. 

Delegate Mark Sickles, a Democratic budget negotiator, expects lab school funding to make the cut but not as much as Youngkin had hoped.

“I feel pretty sure that there will be some lab school funding in the final budget,” Sickles said in an interview on Tuesday. “If this works well, if they’re very good, there will be proposals next year to raise it but I personally don’t think we could’ve spent $150 million dollars over the two years anyway if that had been the final number, which will be revealed.” 

Sickles said Democratic resistance is rooted in Youngkin’s broader push for charter schools, which is largely dead, and underfunding of existing public schools. 

“If you’re going to spend $100 million, $200 million, $300 million on something new, it begs the question why aren’t we funding what we already have,” Sickles said. 

The two top budget negotiators, Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Chair Janet Howell and House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight, declined to comment until a deal is final. Other conferees didn’t respond to interview requests. 

House Education Committee Chair Glenn Davis, the Republican Delegate who sponsored one of the lab school bills, still isn’t sure how things will shake out.

“There may be something but we’re still trying to figure out what the final version looks like,” Davis said when asked about the budget proposal on Tuesday. “If I give you an answer, I have a 50 percent chance of being wrong.”