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More of Youngkin’s lab schools approved, but future state funding still in limbo

Virginia Lab School Committee chair Joan Wodiska (left) and Bill Hansen speak with
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
Virginia Lab School Committee chair Joan Wodiska (in green) and Bill Hansen speak with applicants at their May 2024 meeting.

Three more lab schools were approved by a state committee Monday. The approvals come as future state funding for the program remains in limbo.

A high-ceilinged meeting room in Old City Hall played host to the approval of three lab school applications Monday. Among them was one at Old Dominion Universitywhich aims to educate students as young as kindergarten. The program would refit a Suffolk elementary school to "incorporate hands-on STEM experiences."

All lab school programs aim to train students to be able to hit the employment market quicker and with better skills. And the younger the better according to Virginia Superintendent of Schools Lisa Coons.

“It’s exciting to see our lab schools span K-12 and K-12 opportunities,” Coons told Radio IQ.

But Democrats, who now control the legislative purse strings, weren’t thrilled with the $100 million offered to colleges to help start the programs. Among those who argue the funds could better be spent on the rest of the public education system is Senate Education Committee Chair Ghazala Hashmi.

Hashmi said she went to a lab school herself while growing up, and the state has similar accelerated education options like college partnerships and dual enrollment programs. She said those better match K-12 teachers with K-12 students as opposed to college professors teaching subjects they aren't trained on.

“We’re asking higher [ed] institutions to deliver K-12 curricula and we’re taking 100 million dollars out of public education at a time when public education is in crisis,” she said.

While unable to comment specifically on the budget, Hashmi said lab school applicants should be very concerned about sustainability.

“At this point there really is no appetite to sustain these programs which takeaway dollars from public ed,” she said of Senate Democrats' feelings on Youngkin's lab school program. “It’s one thing to get programs off the ground; it’s another to sustain that and have meaningful impact.”

A second program from George Mason was the third approved Monday. It would bring STEM-focused education to the Shenandoah Valley with help from Laurel Ridge Community College under the guidance of GMU math professor turned lab-school application lead Padhu Seshaiyer.

And Seshaiyer said he wasn’t as worried about funds, as private money via grants and other options are there — as long as his program trains students to work with “enormous amounts of data sets that need to be analyzed."

“It’s time to actually think about whether these high school kids will immediately take a job or go to college,” Seshaiyer said, suggesting their program could "up-skill" both students and teachers as they expand data analysis training in the region.

Monday’s approval brings the total number of Virginia lab school applications approved by the committee to 16, a few shy of Youngkin’s goal of more than 20 by the time he leaves office.

The next step for Monday's applicants will be before the full Virginia Board of Education. A special meeting of the board is scheduled for late May, but its agenda is not yet public.

Legislators will return to Richmond next week to hammer out the next budget.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.