Virginia allotted $100 million earlier this year to launch college partnership laboratory schools throughout the state. While the budget language limits recipients of the funds to public colleges, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera wants to offer the money to private schools, too.
Democratic members of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee pushed back Wednesday against the idea of opening the funds to private colleges, saying the law doesn’t allow for that.
Some private schools, including Virginia Union University and Liberty University, have expressed interest in opening lab schools, and the future of their efforts may hang in the balance.
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“What matters is the language that was put in the budget and signed by the governor, which is unambiguous,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
In June, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a budget that includes $100 million to help launch lab schools — free, K-12 public schools that have the freedom to innovate and control their own budgets.
The budget language allows only public colleges in Virginia to receive the funds. That limitation was written on purpose, said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax. The state should see if lab schools work for public schools before opening up the funding to private schools, Barker said. He added that private colleges shouldn’t receive funds when some K-12 school divisions are still in need.
“That language is not squishy,” Barker said. “That language is very clear as to what it means.”
But Guidera said the administration has a different opinion. The budget also included a clause that redefines lab schools in general as institutions built by public or private colleges. Attorney General Jason Miyares has not offered an opinion on the matter.
Two attorneys for the Division of Legislative Services wrote in July, saying the more restrictive budget language that prohibits private schools from receiving the funds takes precedent.
It’s unclear if private colleges would be forced to stop their efforts without the funding. A spokesperson for Virginia Union did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, Guidera said she’d like to see lab schools open as early as next fall. On Wednesday, she offered a more tempered prediction, saying a couple could open in the fall of 2023 but that the majority will likely open in the fall of 2024.
Supporters of lab schools say that some students aren’t receiving a high quality education and are in need of an alternative. Some schools do very well, Guidera said. But excellence isn’t “available to all families in Virginia.”
Barker disputed the idea that Virginia’s K-12 public school system is underperforming.
“I do take a little bit of exception to saying we’ve been failing our students,” Barker said. “In reality, our school divisions are not failing our students.”
Lab schools would offer children the opportunity to learn in different ways, Guidera said. Corporations such as Microsoft, Google-owner Alphabet Inc. and Amazon have pledged either financial assistance, employees to staff the schools or classroom space. Each school could have a different approach or focus.
The administration would like to see colleges partner with K-12 school districts, nonprofits, museums and other entities. Virginia Union University intends to partner with Richmond Public Schools, a spokesperson for the university said. Virginia State University, which is public, intends to partner with Petersburg schools.
Guidera pledged that no money will leave public school systems to fund their lab schools.
The schools will likely launch in existing buildings. Colleges can’t use government funds to erect new buildings for their lab schools.
No colleges have submitted applications yet, Guidera said.