If all goes according to plan, a new high school will open in Mecklenburg County in the fall of 2024.
The Southern Virginia Career Academy, to be housed inside Mecklenburg County High School in Baskerville, will offer agricultural, computer, health and industrial sciences tracks to students with grades too low to be eligible for dual enrollment at Southside Virginia Community College.
Microsoft, which operates a data center in Boydton, has written a letter of support for the academy, and the community college’s proposal for the school shows that with fundraising efforts, it should be self-sustaining within five years of opening.
SVCA is one of three college partnership laboratory school concepts waiting for approval by the Virginia Department of Education.
Sixteen other projects across the state have been awarded planning grants of up to $200,000 toward creating full proposals for lab schools, with curricula focusing on everything from health care and information technology careers to reading literacy.
Five more colleges have planning grant applications under review.
If they all get off the ground, Virginia could have 24 new K-12 schools as early as fall of 2024. They’ll be run by the colleges that sponsor them, but praise will likely go to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who entered office in 2022 promising to open at least 20 alternative schools.
But some say the lab schools being proposed look more like charter schools, which are public schools run by private entities, often with the help of the business community.
Even if they stray from the typical definition of a lab school, the initiative has bigger challenges than its branding.
It’s not clear whether Virginia will offer long-term support to these lab schools, or whether the majority of the schools that have submitted applications are eligible to receive state funding for their projects. A discrepancy between Virginia law and the 2022 budget could prevent community colleges and private universities receiving grant money to establish their innovative school concepts.
Youngkin’s push for lab schools
Think of a lab school like a bridge for new teachers between the college classroom and the schools they’ll eventually teach in, explained Gretchen Whitman, assistant professor of education at Columbia College in South Carolina.
The concept of lab schools dates to 1896, when philosopher John Dewey opened the first one in Chicago to test learning theories. Lab schools saw a surge of popularity in the first half of the 20th century, but fell out of favor as college education programs began training teachers in partnership with public school systems.
The lab schools that still exist today are usually tied to colleges that perform education research. A notable exception to this is a state program established in North Carolina in 2016. The University of North Carolina system operates nine lab schools around the state aimed at boosting student achievement at underperforming public schools. Training teachers is the network’s secondary goal.
In Virginia, the General Assembly established a state process for authorizing lab schools in 2010. The goal was to provide an opportunity for teachers to use various methods of instruction and develop models that could be replicated in other schools.
But few proposals were submitted by public four-year universities with teacher education programs, or by private colleges when the law was amended in 2012 to include them.
The General Assembly also set up a fund to support lab school development but didn’t allocate money to it.
Jump ahead 12 years. Youngkin promises during his campaign for governor that he’ll open 20 “innovative” charter schools in Virginia to provide additional choices to prepare students for college or the workforce.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, are permitted in most states. Virginia has seven.
Supporters of charters, including many Republicans, see them as alternatives to underperforming public schools. School choice fits neatly inside the push for parental rights by Youngkin and others in the GOP who see parents as a child’s first and primary educator.
Opponents of charters see them as a way to leech money from public school systems.
But in Virginia’s case, the state can’t authorize new charter schools — only local school boards can.
When he took office in January 2022, Youngkin’s “day one” legislative game plan included changing the procedure for authorizing charter schools so that the state could also approve them. The plan also included allowing community colleges to establish lab schools alongside four-year institutions.
“Whether they’re called charter schools, lab schools or schools of innovation — it doesn’t really matter. I don’t care what we call it, I just care that we do it,” Youngkin said in his initial address to the General Assembly.
But less than two weeks into his term, it was clear there wasn’t enough support in Richmond to revamp the state’s charter school rules.
Youngkin started to shift his focus from opening charter schools to opening lab schools. More than a dozen college leaders attended an event hosted by Youngkin to sign an agreement in support of expanding lab schools so that any college or university could open one, and to pledge their intent to submit applications of their own.
The General Assembly approved $100 million in funding for initial lab school proposals and approved projects. A proposal can get a planning grant of up to $200,000 to put toward creating a full plan for a school; approved projects can get up to a million dollars toward startup costs. Any money left over after June 2024 can be distributed among the approved schools to help cover per-pupil costs.
Each lab school must have a unique curriculum focus and must be led by a higher education institution, which employs the lab school’s faculty and staff. The schools must be free and admit interested students via lottery. They’re separate from local school divisions.
But state law and state budget documents are at odds, creating confusion about who is eligible to get the grant money.
Two issues that could hinder lab school development
The Department of Education’s lab school committee started reviewing applications for planning grants in fall 2022, despite confusion about which colleges could actually make plans to establish them.
The state law for establishing lab schools, updated during the 2022 session, says any higher education institution can start a lab school. But the 2022 budget allows state funding for new lab schools to go only to public four-year colleges.
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, asked the Division of Legislative Services to review the discrepancy. The division’s report concluded that community colleges and private schools could apply to open lab schools, but they couldn’t get money from the $100 million state fund to do so.
A debate ensued among lawmakers. House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, wrote in an August 2022 letter to Youngkin that when the General Assembly crafted the budget, the intent was to include two-year and private schools for lab school funding. At a September hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera said the attorney general’s office had provided guidance on following the intent of the law, but didn’t have documentation to share.
The VDOE lab school committee’s current FAQ page says that eligibility is open to public and private schools. When the first 13 planning grants were announced in March 2023, the list included three private schools and three community colleges.
Of the 19 lab school concepts already approved for some funding as of July 2023, 10 are private colleges or community colleges. Only a handful of proposals highlight goals of fostering teacher preparation and training, in line with the original concept for lab schools and closer to Virginia’s initial definition of them from 2010. Instead, the plans center largely on STEM education and career training.
Whitman, of Columbia College, said that when a lab school concept is tied to a technical school or a program to meet a community need such as workforce development, “the issue is that’s not really a lab school. It’s starting to look more like a charter school,” she said. If a lab school receives investment from local businesses, it’s more in line with the charter school public-private partnership model.
The waters can get muddy, she said, between educating a child to be a well-rounded, critical thinker, and training a child for the workforce.
It’s a concern the Virginia Education Association has raised.
The teacher’s union isn’t against lab schools, said Chad Stewart, a policy analyst for the VEA. But Stewart called the initiative “a $100 million experiment to fulfill a campaign promise,” when that money could have gone toward Virginia’s existing public schools to boost teacher pay, improve infrastructure or further fund the at-risk supplement for divisions with high concentrations of poverty.
The teachers union has asked the state auditor to investigate whether funds were misappropriated because of the confusion about whether two-year and private colleges can access the lab school grants. The VEA says the money provided to lab school applicants so far could, in theory, be clawed back if misappropriation is discovered.
But the state auditor’s office can’t review lab school spending until it conducts its next annual audit of the education department, which likely won’t be completed until the fall.
There’s also the question of whether the General Assembly will continue its support for lab schools past this initial funding.
Legislators this year considered establishing a new lab school fund to support college partnership lab schools along with lab schools started within school divisions, but it got tabled in the Senate once it passed in the House.
Then budget talks fell apart ahead of the June 30 deadline for passing any additional funding, making it likely that paying for lab schools won’t get discussed in the statehouse until January.
Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, chair of the Senate Education and Health Committee, has said she would vote for pulling all money from lab schools to focus instead on the state’s public schools.
Lab schools will be eligible for some per-pupil funding from the state, but without further allocation in the budget, running the schools long term would be up to the colleges that operate them.
Whitman said funding is often the most difficult part of ensuring longevity for a lab school. Partnering with a university can be helpful, if it’s one with a substantial endowment that’s willing to invest in a lab school.
Meanwhile, preparations continue for the lab schools that have been proposed in Mecklenburg and elsewhere across the state. Chad Patton, dean of career and technical education at Southside Virginia Community College, said the project will press forward although grant eligibility for community colleges is up in the air.
Southside and Mecklenburg County Public Schools have been partners for decades to offer dual enrollment to high school students, and Patton said the lab school project creates another avenue for that partnership. “Through the success of this project, the outcomes propose increased enrollment, providing additional resources to sustain the infrastructure of the project after the lab school funding is exhausted,” he said by email.
In Salem, private Roanoke College’s proposal to start a lab school for at-risk Salem High School students has been awarded a $193,000 planning grant.
The Lab School at Roanoke College plans to offer tracks for education, STEM and communication for students who don’t see college in their future. Students who complete certain requirements at the lab school can be considered for a scholarship to attend Roanoke College.
Salem City Schools approached the college with the idea, and the college is also working with Virginia Western Community College to ensure that the lab school complements dual enrollment options there, rather than duplicating them.
Kathy Wolfe, vice president of academic affairs and dean at Roanoke College, said planning for the lab school will move forward with the understanding that the college meets eligibility requirements.
“If the goal is to broaden access to innovative pedagogies and affordability of college to more at-promise students in Virginia, then having a lab school to partner with public school districts in the most populous area west of Richmond seems like a good idea,” she said by email. “We can’t control the political conversation about the budget; we just need to do our best work on behalf of students in our region.”