RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- With some main parts of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s school choice agenda effectively dead, one pathway is gaining bipartisan support.
The Senate’s Democratic majority has already rejected bills that aimed to create new avenues for approving charter schools. The legislation would’ve paved the way for new regional collaborations or the state Board of Education to authorize them, regardless of opposition from local school boards.
Meanwhile, Democrats are warming up to a Youngkin-backed bill to expand “lab schools” but the success of that push may hinge on the willingness of House Republicans to cut a deal.
Youngkin has previously used the phrases “charter school” and “lab school” interchangeably.
“I don’t care if you call them charter schools or lab schools it’s time to innovate in K-12 education,” Youngkin said during a press conference last month.
Privately, at least one Republican involved in the effort has advised the administration to draw a clear distinction. That’s because, for Democrats, the details matter and may be the deciding factor in whether Youngkin can deliver a narrow win in a divided government.
High school teacher and Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) has accused some Republicans of intentionally confusing the educational models to “disguise” lab schools as charter schools.
“What we’re seeing is a conflating of this as a way to kind of get charters in through lab schools and I don’t think that’s right, I don’t think that’s what is needed and I think, ultimately, it’s kind of not honest,” said VanValkenburg.
Of concern for VanValkenburg is that the bill moving through the House of Delegates would allow private business and for-profit institutions to run a lab school using taxpayer dollars without the same level of oversight. As introduced, the bill doesn’t explicitly call for the involvement of local school boards and it doesn’t protect public school funding from following the student.
“We’re in a world where we’re not even fully funding public schools now,” VanValkenburg said.
The approach being embraced by both parties in the Senate would expand existing law on lab schools without creating an entirely new model of education, according to Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield).
Traditionally, lab schools have been limited to teacher preparatory programs, according VanValkenburg.
Hashmi said the compromise would allow 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.
“Without the approval of a local school board, a laboratory school would not be able to be established,” Hashmi said. “If the House bill does not conform to what we’ve just agreed to in the Senate, then it would not get support.”
Delegate Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach), the sponsor of the House bill, is concerned that the Senate version limits opportunities for innovation by preventing private business from getting involved.
“I’ve been hearing people in the General Assembly complain since the eighties that all we need is more funding in schools, but more funding in schools doesn’t create innovation in schools. It doesn’t provide our students with all the resources necessary to allow them to reach academic success,” Davis said.
Davis said he is open to further discussion about the approval of local school boards.
“There’s a conversation that can be had I think around this because ultimately a partnership between the two would be tremendous and provide, I think, even a greater springboard on which to build this type of innovation,” Davis said.
Davis said the $150 million budget amendment that Youngkin proposed would come from the general fund and would not divert existing public school funding. He said that money would be distributed in the form of grants to kick start new programs but he doesn’t expect the General Assembly to fund them in an ongoing manner. Instead, he said lab schools could have foundation boards that could raise money.
“It’s going to have to be a sustainable financial system for them to move forward,” Davis said.
The House and the Senate will have to come to a consensus before Governor Youngkin will have a chance to sign the lab school bill into law.