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More lab schools approved, but not without some controversy

Governor Glenn Younkin speaks before a crowd at VCU's School of Engineering, opening the doors to his first STEM-focused lab school.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
Governor Glenn Younkin speaks before a crowd at VCU's School of Engineering, opening the doors to his first STEM-focused lab school.

Governor Glenn Youngkin is still looking to spend $100 million on new lab schools across Virginia, and a handful of applications were approved Thursday. But there were concerns about the viability of at least one of the programs.

Lab schools were authorized by the legislature in 2022. They aim to partner with colleges to provide real world experience to students so they can enter the job field more quickly upon graduation. And while the spirit of the program is supported by many, the funding— directly from the state and given to public and private colleges— has been a source of budget fights.

Democrats say it takes money from existing public schools.

“If he insists on less money for schools, he’s certainly not going to get any more money for lab schools,” Senator Schuyler VanValkenburg told Radio IQ after his party stripped unspent lab school funds from the legislative budget. Democrats also accuse Youngkin of slashing education budgets via amendments offered before the end of the 2024 legislative session.

But Youngkin and Democratic leadership have since agreed to a special session where "everything is on the table," according to House Appropriations chair Del. Luke Torian.

And concerns about future lab school funds from the state were mostly ignored at Thursday's Virginia Board of Education meeting. Six new programs were approved, but not without some push back.

“I’m concerned that, in our haste to get this done quickly, we’re lowering the standards for what we’ve seen in the rest of lab schools, just to get it done fast," said Board Member and George Mason University professor Anne Holton.

Holton was speaking to the financial stability of a proposed lab school at Roanoke College, a complaint lobbed by a minority of members of the Lab School board earlier this month. Her complaints also come after the lab school board voted in April, with the same minority opposition, to expedite the approval process.

And Thursday, Holton, appointed to the board in 2021 by Governor Ralph Northam, was the lone ‘no’ vote for Roanoke’s program and four others. She abstained from the vote on George Mason’s application.

But Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said concerns about applications are overblown.

“These applications are phenomenal, and it makes me giddy because of its exemplar of innovation and opening doors to opportunities to new forms of education,” Guidera told Radio IQ.

Board member Andy Rotherham, a Youngkin appointee and partner at Bellwether Education Partners which aims to support students from marginalized communities, also voiced support for the new approvals.

"We're at the end of a long approval process," Rotherham said. "There's some disagreement about what the next budget for the Commonwealth might look like, but if we wait for the General Assembly to figure it out, we might be waiting a long time."

Guidera said she expects six previously approved programs to be up and running in the next 12 months.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.