Lawmakers pivot to ‘lab schools’ as Senate committee kills charter legislation

Two separate bills in the House and Senate lay out different visions for creating new schools with colleges and universities

By: - February 11, 2022 12:13 am

The Virginia Senate. (2020 file photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Republican hopes of adding more charter schools in Virginia were squashed within 10 minutes on Thursday as Democrats in the Senate Education and Health committee quickly killed a pair of bills aimed at making it easier to start them.

Now, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s campaign pledge to foster school choice largely rests in laboratory schools — K-12 academies developed in partnership with colleges and universities to create “innovative” new curriculum, as Youngkin described them at one public event. Currently, only colleges with teacher training programs are allowed to establish lab schools under Virginia code. But both chambers of the General Assembly are currently carrying bills that would allow any institute of higher education to apply to start a program — legislation aimed at fulfilling Youngkin’s promise to launch 20 new “schools of innovation” across Virginia.

Bringing a bill to his desk, though, will require reconciling the House and Senate versions, which currently lay out two very different visions for lab schools. The Senate legislation, sponsored by Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, was amended by a bipartisan group of legislators with changes to make the bill palatable to both Democrats and Republicans.

Sens. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, and Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, on the Senate floor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The current version restricts the formation of lab schools to public colleges and universities or nonprofit private institutions. It also includes language requiring any applicant to describe how they plan to cooperate with local school boards in founding and operating the lab school, including — potentially — allowing a local board member to serve on the school’s governing body.

“This bill’s had a lot of bipartisan work to improve it,” Pillion told lawmakers on the Senate’s powerful Finance and Appropriations Committee, where the bill sailed through Thursday on a 15-0 vote (only Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, abstained). The legislation also includes far more detail on how to sustainably support the schools, beyond the $150 million that Youngkin has pledged in grant funding. Under Pillion’s bill, any contract submitted to the Virginia Board of Education would require at least a five-year term and a provision that any funding for the first three years be held in a special state fund for laboratory schools.

Crucially, the legislation also specifies that children enrolled in lab schools would still be included in the student count for their local school division — a key provision that ensures districts won’t lose out on any state or local funding. As a result, the bill is supported by multiple educational lobbies, including the Virginia School Boards Association, Virginia Association of School Superintendents and Virginia Education Association, an influential teacher’s union.

“This is more taking the existing concept of lab schools and giving them a little more flexibility to create specialized academies, or strengthen their relationship with workforce opportunities,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who was part of the group of legislators that amended the bill. “And I think a lot of people are a lot more comfortable with that concept.”

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Viginia Beach, talks to colleagues on the floor of the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The House version, on the other hand, contains none of those provisions. Under legislation sponsored by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, for-profit colleges or other institutions of higher learning would be able to apply to start lab schools in Virginia. And the bill currently doesn’t include any requirements for applicants to collaborate with local school boards, or explicitly preserve state funding for local school districts, leading the Democratic Party of Virginia to describe it as “nothing but a charter school bill in disguise.” 

The starkly different reactions to the two bills underscores underlying anxiety over charter schools, at least on the part of most General Assembly Democrats. Most of the charter school bills submitted this year — including bills from Sens. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, and Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield — would have allowed the state Board of Education to supersede local school boards in approving new applications. Other legislation, including a bill from Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, would have diverted state K-12 funding to newly formed charters.

“Essentially, if you come from an area with a high composite index number, you’re screwed by this bill,” Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, told him during a contentious committee hearing. Like the legislation from Suetterlein and Chase, Obenshain’s bill was swiftly killed by committee, and the surviving House version is also expected to meet a quick end once it reaches the Senate.

William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury 2019)

Other criticism has centered on who the schools are intended to serve. Davis, who said he tabled his own charter school bill to focus on the push for lab schools, said the initiative was focused on “failing” local divisions, where schools were struggling to meet federal and state accreditation standards. His bill, though, only instructs the Virginia Department of Education to prioritize applications from historically black colleges or universities, or schools in “underserved” communities where a high percentage of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Pillion’s legislation is more specific, instructing the department to consider the academic performance, test scores, graduation rates and college entry metrics for any local district where a lab school has been proposed. The focus on struggling districts, though, has also made some Democrats wary of allowing any for-profit business involvement, which has been linked to financial mismanagement in some other states. 

“What we’ve seen is that these kinds of schools can work, but often they don’t work,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a public school teacher who opposed Davis’ lab school bill. “And the reason for that is they work under certain circumstances — when there’s a common good the school is working toward. But a lot of this legislation would allow these companies to come in, or these charter school networks, that aren’t responsive to local need.”

As both bills make their way through the House and Senate, it’s still not clear what provisions will be included in the final version of the legislation. The vision for lab schools in Virginia is equally uncertain. Historically, lab schools have served a range of purposes, from experimental incubators for new educational concepts to teacher training academies for colleges and universities. Davis has envisioned workforce-oriented curriculum with input from local business partners like Newport News Shipbuilding. The Youngkin administration has suggested some schools could be used for students with specific learning needs.

“It won’t be one-size-fits-all,” Aimee Guidera, the state’s new secretary of education, said in a committee debate on Pillion’s bill. “They’ll be responsive to different needs — regional needs, employment needs — but also, some of these schools will be focused on learning disabilities. How do we take some of the greatest research that’s happening right now about reading and literacy and how do we turn that into a lab school?”

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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.