The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, would be very happy if Senate Democrats stripped all funding for so-called “lab schools” from the state budget.

Here’s what WRIC-TV in Richmond reported last week:

Senator Lucas said she’s ok with potentially pulling money from those programs if budget negotiations go their way.

“Absolutely. That’s not something that we’re going to tolerate. As I’ve indicated before, we’re here to make sure we prop up public schools and we’re not going to let anything deter us from our mission,” Lucas said. “I’m not in favor of anything that takes money from public education. I don’t care what it is. I don’t care if it’s a lab school.”

Lucas thinks that money would be better spent enhancing traditional public schools by funding additional support staff, among other priorities. 

Lab schools — specialized high schools focusing on a particular subject — are something that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been pushing for, and got approval for last year. (State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, was the main Senate sponsor.) The state Department of Education is now in the process of awarding planning grants for what would be the initial round of lab schools. 

Republicans see Lucas’ comments about stripping funding from lab schools as simply a negotiating tactic; her distaste for the governor is well-known. Negotiating tactic or not, Democrats have never been keen on these lab schools, fearing that they are simply charter schools under a different name — and a back-door way to siphon money away from public schools and toward private ones. The lab school legislation requires a college to be the sponsor for a lab school but allows private colleges to submit applications.

At the risk of making both sides mad, I will dare to wade into this to offer some additional insight.

First, some background: I’m not particularly philosophical, as regular readers may have figured out. I tend to be more practical: Does something work? If so, I’m not particularly concerned which side of the ideological spectrum it springs from. 

In my old age, I have fallen in love with math because math is pretty indisputable. (Yes, I know my high school algebra teacher, the late Fred Pence at Montevideo High School in Rockingham County, would have been astounded by this.) I’ve written more than once about why the United States needs more, not less, immigration. To me, that’s simply a math problem: We need more workers, we need more young adults to help balance the demographic pyramid and pay taxes into entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare as waves of baby boomers retire and start drawing from those funds. Since we’re not doing that through birth rates (which have been falling for decades), we need to do that through immigration. No, we can’t have people simply walking across the border. On the other hand, for the migrants already here, if they managed to walk a thousand miles through the desert to get here, they’re probably more motivated to be Americans than a lot of native-born Americans I’ve met, so I’m not particularly troubled by their lack of legal status. For those who are troubled, I have yet to hear a solution to the basic math problem. (For a more musical version of this, I refer you to country singer Will Hoge’s song “The Illegal Line.”) 

That probably puts me on the left side of the spectrum (although Jay Timmons, who leads the conservative-leaning National Association of Manufacturers, made the same case last fall in Danville). Now let me offer an insight — again, driven by math — that may put me on the right side of things, ideologically speaking.

I completely understand the concern about diverting money from public schools. I’m certainly not in favor of that. For now, the funding for lab schools is presented as “extra” money. Whether it truly is might be debatable; if the lab school program didn’t exist, where would that money go? To other school programs or some other part of state government? That’s kind of an unanswerable question. 

What I can see more clearly is that these lab schools are intended to help create a bigger talent pipeline for certain in-demand fields. That’s a problem throughout Virginia, although maybe it’s not as big a problem in the metro areas where Democrats are concentrated — I don’t live there, so I don’t know.

What I do know is that the lack of a sufficiently trained workforce is a concern I hear throughout the western part of Virginia. And what I see from the lab school proposals is that the ones from this part of Virginia do, indeed, address those workforce challenges.

  • Virginia has a shortage of health care workers. A recent report by Old Dominion University warned that some parts of Virginia — mostly rural areas — face the potential of being “nurse deserts” because they simply don’t have enough. WVTF-FM radio reports that a new mental health facility in Abingdon is sitting unopened because the place can’t find enough health care workers. The GO Virginia economic development board for Southwest Virginia has identified health care workers as one of its top needs. All this is math (although I’ve spared you the numbers). Now, Emory & Henry College has proposed a lab school devoted to health care careers (and has been awarded a $200,000 state grant for planning). This sure seems to be meeting an otherwise unmet need in the region.
  • We also face a shortage of trade workers. Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg has proposed a lab school devoted to career and technical education programs that is awaiting approval. That sure seems likely to meet an unmet need.
  • This part of Virginia is also trying to build a technology sector. Finding tech workers in rural areas is quite challenging. Mountain Gateway Community College in Clifton Forge has been approved for a planning grant for a lab school that would focus on cybersecurity, cloud computing and information technology. Once again, this sure seems to be meeting an unmet need.
  • Martinsville, a community that two decades ago saw its economy collapse with the demise of a domestic textile industry, is trying to rebuild itself as an advanced manufacturing center. Advanced manufacturing depends on workers with a background in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The New College Institute put together a proposal for a lab school that would focus on STEM curriculum. That proposal was rejected for being too thin, but NCI seems on the right track. A new report by the Brookings Institution finds that Martinsville has the lowest percentage of highly digitalized jobs in the state among metropolitan and micropolitan areas. To the extent that many advanced manufacturing jobs are digitalized, the lab school that the New College Institute proposed would address a basic workforce problem in the Martinsville-Henry County area.

I can’t speak for all the lab school proposals but the ones in Southwest and Southside sure seem laser-focused on addressing local workforce challenges. A pending proposal from Southside Virginia would create a lab school “with a focus on preparing all students for jobs that have been specifically identified by the GoVA Region 3 Economic Development Authority.” I see another from a different rural area in Virginia that is also tailor-made to its region. Eastern Shore Community College has been approved for a planning grant for a lab school to focus on aerospace careers — with an eye on creating a local workforce for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, one of just five sites in the country licensed for space launches. So far at least 14 resupply missions to the International Space Station have launched from Accomack County. 

If Virginia were to defund these lab schools, what would happen to these programs? It matters not to me whether these programs are run through lab schools or regular public school systems or somebody else entirely — but they weren’t being run before, and now they might be. Democrats are right to worry about money being taken away from public schools; this seems to be a case where their geographical concentration in metro areas leaves them blind to the economic realities in rural Virginia, where populations are generally declining and workforces are generally shrinking, which makes it even more unlikely that new employers will locate there.

If lab schools aren’t helping create a talent pipeline for more health care workers in Southwest Virginia, or IT workers in the Alleghany Highlands, or skilled trade workers in Lynchburg, or advanced manufacturing workers in Martinsville, or aerospace workers on the Eastern Shore, or workers for whatever jobs GO Virginia Region 3 has identified need filling in Southside, who is?

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at