With Charter School Bills Dead, Virginia Republicans Turn to Lab Schools, but Democrats Are Wary

Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned on creating 20 new charter schools in Virginia, but the Virginia Senate Education and Health Committee killed Republican-led charter school legislation. As a result, Republicans are pivoting to lab schools — schools that are part of the local district-operated as partnerships with education programs at local higher ed institutions. Legislation to expand Virginia’s lab schools to institutions with programs beyond education is currently in conference committee with negotiators from the House of Delegates and the Senate to try to create a compromise to send to Youngkin.

“It’s going to be an opportunity for us to move some charter-schools-lite through,” House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Scott) told The Virginia Star during a discussion of top priorities at the beginning of the 2022 special session.

In the House of Delegates, House Education Chair Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) introduced HB 346 on behalf of the Youngkin administration.

Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera told the House Education Committee in February that she had been meeting with presidents of colleges and universities.

“They’re already working with K-12. They want to expand it and they see this bill as a way to just double down on what they’re doing in building a partnership with school divisions, with school boards,” she said.

House Democrats and some education groups opposed that legislation, citing concerns that it would allow for-profit higher ed institutions to participate, and would erode the authority of local school boards.

There’s also a broader conversation over what lab schools should be.

In the House Education Committee, Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a school teacher, expressed concerns about “squishing together a whole bunch of different terms — a lab school, charter school, innovation school.”

“A lab school’s intention is to be a teacher preparatory, innovative place where you’re trying new pedagogy and you’re trying out with teachers who are learning,” he said. “A lab school is different from a charter school, and what this bill is is making lab schools charter schools.”

He explained, “A traditional school is run by the school board whereas the charter school you outsource the board management.”

The expanded role of lab schools has supporters on both sides of the aisle. Senator Todd Pillion (R-Washington) worked with Senators Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) and Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) to create SB 598, which received support from education organizations. In February, Hashmi told the Education Committee that Pillion’s legislation would allow partnerships around programs including STEM, language arts, or performing arts.

During the legislative process, HB 346 was changed to match SB 598. Unlike HB 346, SB 598 doesn’t allow for-profit higher education institutions to participate. It also includes an application process requiring higher ed institutions to describe plans to work with local school boards and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. There’s also a debate over funding, tying the passage of the legislation to the inclusion of funding provisions in the budget compromise.

House Republicans advised delegates to accept the Senate’s changes to HB 346, noting that once they pass the legislation, Youngkin can send it back with desired amendments.

“What I expect to have happen is that the bill that is in the Senate is going into conference, that we will have significant conversation in conference, and I would expect that the governor would amend the bill as it comes out of conference and hopefully passed by the respective bodies,” Davis said on March 10 in the House.

If a compromise is sent to Youngkin, and if he amends it, it will still have to get past Senate Democrats, some of whom are wary that lab schools will become a Trojan horse for charter schools.

When the Senate first passed SB 598, McClellan defended the bill, but said, “Let me be clear: lab schools are not, and have never been, in Virginia charter schools. Any amendments to this bill to turn it into a charter schools bill will not be looked upon favorably by those of us on this side of the aisle who support lab schools.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].



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