RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Governor Glenn Youngkin is touting plans to create new laboratory innovation charter schools across Virginia but Democrats may be standing in his way. 

At a press conference on Thursday, Governor Youngkin unpacked one of his biggest campaign promises alongside Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears, Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera, more than 30 leaders in higher education and an eager pack of school kids. He later signed a ceremonial agreement, signaling a renewed commitment to innovation in education.

“I don’t care whether you call them charter schools or lab schools,” Youngkin said. “We are not defining the solution, but opening up all available avenues to be innovative. This is our opportunity to think outside the box.”

Youngkin said these programs could be new schools or converted existing schools that partner with institutions of higher education to teach an innovative curriculum. That may mean focusing on a particular skill, industry, trade or subject area like STEM. Others may focus on underserved communities like students with disabilities, according to Youngkin.

Several components of Youngkin’s plan to launch 20 new innovation schools hinge on approval in a skeptical Senate, still narrowly controlled by Democrats. The party has already spoiled several proposals from Republicans, newly empowered after winning back statewide offices and the House of Delegates.

One bill would loosen existing restrictions on when a lab school can be established. Youngkin said, currently, they can only be opened by colleges or universities that operate a teacher education program.

House Education Committee Chair Delegate Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) said other proposals aim to expand who can authorize the creation of a charter school. Two bills on the table would extend that power to the state Board of Education and regional collaborations, rather than leaving it to local school boards. 

“Every school system is a little different and the best option may be different for each one,” Davis said.

Youngkin is also proposing a budget amendment of $150 million over two years that would incentivize the creation of new programs. 

Youngkin said they are launching a challenge for local school districts to work with post secondary partners to design lab school applications. He said those proposals will be submitted later this spring and reviewed by a panel who will decide how the funding is distributed. 

First, that funding will first need to survive the General Assembly in a divided government. 

“Based on conversations with senators and delegates from both sides, I think there is strong bipartisan support and, again, we have plenty of money in the system in order to fund this,” Youngkin said.

However, Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), who chairs the Senate Education and Health Committee and serves on the Senate Finance Committee, isn’t convinced that charter schools are more effective than traditional public schools. 

“Governor Youngkin said it himself, call my charter bill whatever you want. Well, I’m going to call it for what it is. It’s a way to siphon off funds from public schools,” Lucas said. “For me as a non-starter but there are 15 members of the committee.” 

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) wasn’t immediately available for an interview but, confronted with a question about charter schools in passing, he was quick to say, “I’m opposed to it.” 

Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said, for her, the devil is in the details. 

McClellan said she previously attended a laboratory school and is generally open to the concept. However, she’s skeptical of Youngkin’s push to expand the scope of these programs and who can authorize them.  

“Virginia has put the overall supervision of public education in the hands of local school boards who are elected by the people in that locality. Taking that away and giving that authority to a centralized Board of Education made up of people who are not accountable to the voters is problematic,” McClellan said.

McClellan also fears Youngkin’s push will divert funding from overdue needs in traditional public schools, such as school construction and increasing support staff.

In response to concerns that charter schools will divert money from public education, Youngkin said, “This is why the design of the lab school is so important. It is in fact part of the public school system. It is not outside of the public school system.”