RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration is releasing more information on their plan to kickstart new schools across Virginia.
The first lab schools are expected to open as early as fall 2023 with more to follow in 2024, according to a presentation given to the State Board of Education this week. Under the timeline laid out by Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera, the application form for new planning grants is expected to be posted at the end of August.
“This is a really fast timeline. It can be done, but this is a really ambitious timeline to open schools,” Andy Rotherham, a member of the board, said on Wednesday.
To launch a lab school, institutions of higher education will collaborate with school divisions to create an innovative program that’s tailored toward local needs and workforce demands.
“Our one size fits all system is not serving all kids,” Guidera said.
Lab schools are tuition-free and have no religious affiliation. They’re subject to the same state and federal laws that guide public education, including the standards of quality, learning and accreditation.
The State Board of Education is charged with approving contracts for proposed programs, which will be carried out by a separate board of stakeholders chosen to oversee the lab school.
Guidera said, while the concept is not new, this is the first time lawmakers are putting state funding towards starting lab schools. The General Assembly approved $100 million for grants that will be used for planning, start-up costs and operations.
Guidera said there is enough money for 25 planning grants but at least 36 institutions of higher education have expressed interest so far, according to her presentation.
“This has generated such extraordinary excitement on all fronts,” Governor Youngkin told the board during brief remarks on Wednesday.
Private businesses are also hoping to get involved.
“Google has committed $250,000 to make sure this gets launched. Amazon has committed to, not just the computer science work, but they have said these lab schools are a core part of their workforce development investments in the Commonwealth of Virginia. There is a commitment from LEGO,” Guidera said.
The Virginia Education Association raised concerns about how lab schools will be sustained. State lawmakers allocated one-time funding and it’s not clear what the future holds.
“With no guarantee of continued state support in future years, we must avoid creating scenarios where new lab schools can only sustain for a single year with state support and, in turn, create significant disruption for students upon their closure,” said Chad Stewart, a policy analyst with the VEA.
Sustainability is among the factors that will be evaluated when considering applications for grant funding, according to Guidera.
“No plans are approved that do not deal with the sustainability issue because this is not a flash-in-the-pan approach,” Guidera said.
A committee chosen to evaluate applications will also look at the targeted student population, the program description, the operations timeline and regional diversity.
“We will not put a second one in any region until there is one in every single region because we are serious about that regional diversity,” Guidera said.
Dr. Kume Goranson is the executive director of CodeRVA, a regional program focused on computer science that Youngkin has called a model for future lab schools. She said many of her students travel an hour or more to access the program.
“If similar computer science-focused lab schools existed in all regions of the commonwealth, many of our students would be able to attend schools closer to where they live while still accessing the curriculum that they love,” Goranson said.
As the effort picks up steam, some are still raising questions on whether the General Assembly’s actions earlier this year allow certain private universities and community colleges to receive grant funding. The Youngkin administration believes they can.
But in a July 28 letter to Senate Finance Committee Chair Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), two staff attorneys working for the Division of Legislative Services said lawmakers only authorized funding for “a public higher education center, institute, or authority.”