In push for school choice, Youngkin’s hope may lie in a lesser-known option

The administration is touting ‘lab schools’ as another way to help struggling divisions. But not all lawmakers are convinced.

By: - February 7, 2022 12:02 am

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and House Speaker Todd Gilbert, Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his first State of the Commonwealth address on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Photo by Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Late last week, Gov. Glenn Youngkin gathered more than two dozen leaders from Virginia colleges and universities to tout an educational initiative that’s largely faded from the state’s lexicon. 

The governor was urging General Assembly lawmakers to support his push for “lab schools” — partnerships, he said, between institutions of higher learning and K-12 school divisions. A more than decade-old law opened the door for lab schools in Virginia, but the administration is backing two bills, currently moving through the House of Delegates and Senate, that would allow any college or university to establish one. 

Youngkin has pledged $150 million for the initiative, which spokesperson Macaulay Porter said would go into a laboratory school fund first created in 2010. 

“It’s a new school, or a converted existing school, that partners with a university, with a college, with a community college to focus on innovative curriculum,” Youngkin explained at the event. “And what is that innovative curriculum? That’s what we’re going to ask everybody to go to work on.”

The governor has framed the initiative as separate from his push for charter schools, a more contentious proposal that’s so far been rejected by many Senate Democrats. Neither chamber has heard a lab school bill in full committee — where lawmakers advance or block legislation from moving onto the floor — but there are some indicators the legislation could meet more success. Last week, a Senate subcommittee voted to advance a lab school bill from Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, on a 3-0 vote, with Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, abstaining.

Success, though, could hinge on convincing Democrats — who still hold a slim majority in the Senate — that lab schools are substantially different from the governor’s charter school proposal. Right now, it’s not clear the administration has done that. Both parties have used “lab schools” and “charter schools” interchangeably at some points in public debate, and Democrats appear uncertain how the two initiatives diverge — framing both as an effort to pull money from Virginia’s public schools. 

“I think like a lot of things from the governor, we haven’t seen super concrete proposals about how he plans to get things done,” said Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. “We do have to balance a budget in Virginia, so I think everybody should be asking that question — what does he plan to cut in order to fund this promise?”

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Where did the idea for lab schools come from?

While the concept may have been recently revived in Virginia, laboratory schools aren’t new. One of the earliest and most famous examples of the model was founded in the late 19th century at the University of Chicago by the philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey. Most educational experts still associate the term with Dewey’s model — an experimental school, attached to a college or university, that’s intended as a way to experiment with new educational practices and curricula, said Lorin Anderson, a professor of education at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

“Lab schools were always this notion of, we want to have a Petri dish,” he said. “We want to have a lab, like with rats, where we can do experiments and not rely on outside research findings, but research that’s generated within the lab school.” Dewey, for example, incorporated hands-on learning and practical skills into his curriculum, including a class where students handled wool and cotton while learning about the science of the textile industry.

That definition, though, has shifted over the years. By the 1930s, most K-12 schools associated with colleges and universities were focused on teacher training, according to a 2010 review of laboratory schools in the journal Perspectives on Urban Education.  Some still incorporated aspects of experimentation, including D. Webster Davis Laboratory School — a now-closed Black high school in Chesterfield County that offered hands-on training for students at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University). But the association between lab schools and work experience has become so established that under current Virginia code, the programs can only be founded by colleges or universities with teacher training programs.

Both bills backed by the Youngkin administration would repeal that requirement, allowing any institute of higher education to apply to the Virginia Board of Education to start a lab school. The governor and his newly appointed education officials have also signaled a shift back to the old model, framing the programs as a way to promote “innovation” in K-12 education.

Democrat Ghazala Hashmi speaks after winning her senate race against Republican Glen Sturtevant at an election party in downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

“This is a different kind of a laboratory school where I think the focus is on the work of the students,” Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, pointed out in a hearing on Pillion’s bill. “So it’s really a reversal of what we had previously.”

Are lab schools really different from charter schools?

Traditionally, yes. Both are considered to be government-funded alternatives to public schools run independently from local school divisions. But Porter, Youngkin’s spokesperson, said lab schools are specifically connected with institutes of higher learning, which generally isn’t the case for charters. 

Parental involvement is also key to the charter school concept, according to Anderson, but has never been considered central to lab schools.

“Charter schools supposedly take the authority that, in traditional public schools, is given to the local school board,” he said. “And then they set up what’s really an individual school-level board.” Under Virginia code, charters are overseen by a management committee that includes parents, school teachers and administrators, and community sponsors. Lab schools, on the other hand, are overseen solely by the governing board of the university operating the program.

In Virginia, though, the distinction is murkier. Legislation in the House would also allow private businesses to set up lab schools, blurring the traditional definition, Anderson said. The lack of clarity has led some critics to suggest that Youngkin is pushing lab schools as a more politically palatable alternative to charters, even though they’d essentially serve the same function.

“I’m biased, obviously, but I think this is kind of an underhanded way of getting to charter schools,” said Atif Qarni, the former secretary of education under Gov. Ralph Northam. Even Youngkin has publicly contradicted the notion that the two initiatives are separate. In some cases, he’s used the terms interchangeably, always calling for $150 million to set up 20 new “innovation-based schools” across Virginia. 

“Whether they’re called charter schools, lab schools, or schools of innovation – it doesn’t really matter,” the governor said in his first address to the General Assembly. “I don’t care what we call it — I just care that we do it.”

What’s driving opposition?

Arguments against both charter schools and lab schools have fallen into two separate categories: funding and effectiveness.

The financial aspect has been a frequent focus of opponents, including Hudson, who discussed the initiatives as part of a news conference on what Democrats have framed as Youngkin’s efforts to defund public education. Porter said the governor wants to allocate $150 million for new schools in addition to the state’s normal K-12 funding. But so far, Youngkin hasn’t suggested a revenue source for any of his budget amendments, which total $3.5 billion

Some of the bills backed by the administration would also have reallocated state and federal per-pupil funding from local school divisions to charter schools whenever a student enrolled. Supporters argued that districts would still get to keep their share of local funding, even if they were supporting fewer students. But many of Virginia’s poor and rural school districts receive far more of their funding — sometimes up to 70 or 80 percent — from the state. 

For those districts, losing a few students to charters wouldn’t bring down overhead costs, opponents argued. But it would lead to a substantial loss of funding for school divisions in low-income localities with no clear way to replace it.

“In Fairfax County, we raise the real estate tax one penny and bring in 20-some million dollars,” Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said in one committee hearing. “That rural area, they’d almost have to raise it a buck or two bucks to get near that, and it would still be doubtful.”

“Essentially, if you come from an area with a high composite index number, you’re screwed by this bill,” he continued. “You’re totally screwed.”

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, speaks on the Senate floor in 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Even supporters of the lab school initiative acknowledge that the state would need a steady funding stream to make it successful. Jim Dyke, who served as secretary of education under former Gov. Doug Wilder, said the state historically hasn’t provided any ongoing financial incentives to colleges or universities that step up to run lab schools. But as a longtime supporter of the concept — which he sees as a creative way to improve educational options in struggling school districts — Dyke didn’t view the revenue issue as an insurmountable challenge.

Qarni, on the other hand, saw it as another indicator that the administration hasn’t fully considered its push for either lab or charter schools. He described $150 million as a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s total spending on K-12 schools, which exceeds $14 billion without counting local or federal contributions. 

At best, he said the proposal could help support a few schools, but he worried what would happen if future governors didn’t share the same goal. 

“My fear is there’s going to be a cliff where we don’t have this budget surplus and the economy’s not doing as well and then what happens to these schools?” he said. Historically, both lab and charter schools also have mixed records of success. According to Anderson, the purpose of lab schools has always been to address unique, school-specific challenges, which vary widely depending on the school’s location and student demographics. 

“As soon as you sit down and say, ‘This school found something and we’re going to mass produce it across the entire district,’ you’ve lost the entire purpose of lab schools,” he said. And when they are effective, specialized schools typically serve only a few hundred students at most — one of the biggest criticisms lobbed by Democrats.

“One issue that continues to baffle me is if we know about innovative practices that make these radical impacts on students, and if we know there are opportunities that can transform school systems, why are we not taking those innovative practices and that funding and putting it right into our ‘failing school systems,’” Hashmi said in committee. “Why are we creating a second tier of education?”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.