RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It’s the end of the road for major components of the GOP’s education agenda after a Democrat-led panel dealt a final blow to several bills on Thursday, but the battle over lab schools isn’t over yet.
In an interview, Senate Education and Health Committee Chair Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) doubled down on an effort to almost entirely defund the state’s new lab school initiative that is already awarding grants, after Democrats shot down a bill that would’ve loosened rules around these alternative public schools.
The committee also rejected a batch of “parental rights” bills, including measures that would have alerted parents about sexually explicit school library books, outside speakers coming into the classroom and gender identity transitions by their students.
“Common sense, parental involvement bills just have no place in today’s Democratic Party,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, in a statement.
“While we are in favor of parental involvement, some of these bills were just a bridge too far,” Lucas said. “Our trash can is full because we have dispensed with a lot of those bills today.”
An effort to gut a major school choice initiative championed by Governor Glenn Youngkin is still playing out during closed-door budget negotiations.
Last year, the General Assembly approved $100 million to launch new lab schools–partnerships between local public school divisions and institutions of higher education with innovative lesson plans. Programs currently in the works focus on high-demand areas like computer science and STEM.
“The GOP believes that we can utilize technology, that we can utilize innovation to make sure every child has a chance to reach their full potential. We no longer have to have public schools that operate like they did in the 1970s and 1980s. We can do better and we should do better,” said House Education Committee Chair Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach), who sponsored the lab school bill.
This session, Governor Youngkin and House Republicans are requesting an additional $50 million in grant funding while Senate Democrats want to slash $95 million from the current pot in their budget proposal.
According to an interactive map, the Virginia Department of Education has already awarded ten planning grants for lab schools, with another six applications in the pipeline. VDOE Spokesperson Charles Pyle said more than $1.1 million has been given out so far but, if the pending requests are approved, that total will rise to roughly $3 million.
Two other programs, spearheaded by James Madison University and Southside Virginia Community College, are further along and are waiting for approval to launch lab schools this fall, according to Pyle. He said both of those programs could receive $1 million dollar start-up grants in addition to operating grants based on per-pupil enrollment.
Senator Lucas said she’s ok with potentially pulling money from those programs if budget negotiations go their way.
“Absolutely. That’s not something that we’re going to tolerate. As I’ve indicated before, we’re here to make sure we prop up public schools and we’re not going to let anything deter us from our mission,” Lucas said. “I’m not in favor of anything that takes money from public education. I don’t care what it is. I don’t care if it’s a lab school.”
Lucas thinks that money would be better spent enhancing traditional public schools by funding additional support staff, among other priorities. The Senate’s budget proposal includes roughly $637 million more in additional, direct aid for local public schools compared to the House plan, according to a breakdown from The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) said she voted against the lab school bill because it didn’t stop private businesses and colleges from getting involved. She also raised concerns about relaxing standards that apply to traditional public schools.
But Davis argues that public schools have been asking for more flexibility to meet their community’s unique workforce needs. At least 20 regionally diverse public school divisions are currently involved in lab schools that have approved planning grants, according to VDOE’s dashboard.
“I don’t think these schools are on the chopping block. I think this is a negotiation tool in the budget. It’s unfair. It makes people get concerned that they’re going down a path they’re not going to be able to afford, but I do believe the money will be there,” Davis said.
“Well I would tell him don’t hold his breath,” Lucas responded. “That’s all I can say about that.”