Lab Schools: An Experiment Worth Making

Lab School, Washington, D.C., affiliated with American University

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Governments fund the activities upon which they place priority. Budget is policy. A budget bill is chock full of choices and priorities. Analyzing an entire budget bill would be a long and tedious process, but proposed amendments to a budget provide an opportunity to focus on specific policy choices.

With that in mind, and before it fades too far into our collective memory, it would be beneficial to examine over the course of several articles some of the amendments proposed by Governor Youngkin and their reception by the General Assembly. Because Steve Haner has already discussed the amendments dealing with taxes, I will not include them in this discussion.

One issue that has been the subject of much discussion on this blog has been that of charter schools. A variation of charter schools was one of the primary issues addressed in the budget amendments.

First, a little background. State law authorizes the establishment of “college partnership laboratory schools” (“lab schools”). The definition of a lab school is:

…a public, nonsectarian, nonreligious school in the Commonwealth established by a public institution of higher education or private institution of higher education that operates a teacher education program approved by the Board [of Education].

The statutory objectives of these facilities are:

…to (i) stimulate the development of innovative programs for preschool through grade 12 students; (ii) provide opportunities for innovative instruction and assessment; (iii) provide teachers with a vehicle for establishing schools with alternative innovative instruction and school scheduling, management, and structure; (iv) encourage the use of performance-based educational programs; (v) establish high standards for both teachers and administrators; (vi) encourage greater collaboration between education providers from preschool to the postsecondary level; and (vii) develop models for replication in other public schools.

Following are the major provisions applicable to lab schools:

  • Cannot discriminate on basis of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, national ancestry, or need for special education services;
  • Enrollment shall be open through a lottery process on a space-available basis to any student who is deemed to reside within Virginia;
  • Shall be administered and managed by a governing board;
  • Are subject to Standards of Quality (SOQ) requirements, including Standards of Learning (SOL) and accreditation standards;
  • Responsible for their own operations;
  • May not charge tuition for courses required for high school graduation;
  • Encouraged to develop collaborative partnerships with local school divisions;
  • Must be approved by Board of Education;
  • As part of approval, must enter into a contract with Board setting out the “the academic and operational performance expectations and measures by which the college partnership laboratory school will be judged” as well as all agreements regarding the release of the lab school from state requirements;
  • Lab school personnel are employees of the institution of higher education that establishes the school; and
  • Teachers in lab schools must be certified by the Board of Education.

The state has not provided funding for lab schools in prior years. To fill this void, at the beginning of the session, the Governor’s proposed budget amendments included $100 million in the first year of the 2022-2024 biennium and $50 million in the second year for lab schools. The final budget bill included $100 million the first year. Of that amount, $25 million was set aside for planning and startup costs, with the remainder being available to pay per-pupil costs of attendance. The amendment also expanded the pool of institutions authorized to establish lab schools to include all public and private colleges and universities, rather than just those with teacher education programs.

The first amendment proposed by the Governor further expanded the list of higher-ed institutions that could establish a lab school to include higher education centers, institutes, and authorities, as well as all nonprofit private higher education institutions. As explained in the debates in the General Assembly, this expansion includes community colleges.

The justification for this expansion was not clear from the floor debates. In the House, Del. William Wampler, R-Abingdon, was designated as the floor manager for the amendment but seemed confused about what constituted a lab school. He cited as possible examples of models a coding program offered by a higher-ed center in his district and a welding program offered by the community college. How a charter school modeled on those programs could be in compliance with the SOQ and SOL was not explained. The amendment was approved on a party line vote.

In the Senate, the circumstances were more interesting. First of all, the Democrats were down one member because Sen. Scott Surovell. D-Fairfax, did not attend the session. After the amendment’s floor manager, Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, introduced the amendment without even attempting to provide any explanation for it, the vote was soon called. Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, took a “walk.” The resulting 19-19 tie was broken by Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears in favor of the amendment.

With his second amendment concerning lab schools, the Governor confirmed the claims of opponents of charter schools that such schools would take funding from public schools. It would have provided that students enrolled in a lab school would be counted in the average daily membership of the lab school, rather than the school district, and that all state funding on a per-pupil basis (SOQ, categorical, etc.) would “follow the student” and be distributed to the lab school, rather than to the school district.

The amendment was approved by the House, but, in the Senate, Morrissey was back in his seat, and the amendment failed on a 20-19 vote. In both houses, the votes were straight party-line votes.

My Soapbox

While lab schools will provide an alternative to regular public schools, they are not the charter schools that many advocates have called for. Their connection to higher ed likely causes heartburn for many regular participants on this blog. They certainly fall short of the Governor’s campaign promises. However, given the adamant opposition of Democrats to charter schools and their control of the Senate, an expansion of entities eligible to start lab schools and $100 million to help is probably the best that Youngkin could hope for.  (Even Chap Petersen, the Democrat that many conservatives on this blog feel is amenable to moderation in their favor, voted against both lab school amendments.)

It is highly unlikely that there will be any new lab schools in operation at the beginning of the next school year. There is a lot to do: application procedures adopted by the Board of Education, development of applications by local higher ed institutions, review of those applications, negotiating contracts with those chosen, hiring of staff, etc.

This is an experiment that deserves a chance. The Governor’s amendment to expand the list of eligible sponsors to include community colleges and higher-ed centers will give communities not close to a four-year college or university a chance to have a lab school. Within the statutory framework governing lab schools, it is difficult to understand why there would be any objection to them. This is especially true considering that, under the proposal recently adopted, lab schools will be fully funded by the state while localities will continue to receive the state aid for local education for those students enrolled in a lab school, although it could be argued that the state funding, at least, should “follow the student” in these public schools.

It will be interesting to see how many applications the Board receives. The variety of proposals received and the types of applications approved by the Board will be important in establishing the credibility of lab schools as a viable alternative to traditional public schools. The performance of the approved schools could be important in illustrating more effective ways of teaching Virginia’s children.

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35 responses to “Lab Schools: An Experiment Worth Making”

  1. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    It’s an experiment that is designed to fail. Basically, it must have all the other accoutrements of a public school and we are supposed to expect a difference?
    Remove nonsectarian, nonreligious and the other things that require it to look like a public school. Allow freedom to establish different curricula. Let parents be able to choose. Thales Academy is apparently capped at $5300 for tuition. That is less than the per student cost of public. Perhaps the Maine Supreme Court case will open some real experimentation.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      See my comment below regarding the Supreme Court case.

      1. walter smith Avatar
        walter smith

        That wasn’t where I was headed. The Maine case was based on Maine. But it might serve as an example that certain experimentation with religious based schools could be funded.
        And Jim thought “designed” to fail may have been too broad, but I share the skepticism due to the rigorous cleavage to the education behemoth orthodoxy, so I call that designed to fail…maybe doomed to fail?
        I was only 6 when Madalyn Murray O’Hair got prayer outlawed (at the Supreme Court with judge made law from an activist court) and couldn’t comprehend, but remember my Mom specifically bemoaning it. I’d say looks like she was right…
        Somehow, before all the government “help,” we educated people in the frontier, likely only with a Bible and McGuffey’s Readers. I would bet, if you allowed a specifically Christian school (kids don’t have to be Christian, but agree to live within its rules), it would far outperform the regular blob, and Muslim and Jewish and Asian parents would want their kids to go there for the discipline and expectations and absence of promoting perversions (sorry to speak the truth, but it is). It worked for a long time…

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          for all the talk about “indoctrinating” kids these days – at the least Religion should be also recognized for what it is.

          As a kid, I actually did attend Catholic School, taught by nuns and taught, among a number of things , that the Catholic Bible and Sacraments were the only true ones. The other religions were called cults who used books that were not true bibles.

          The only acceptable prayers were Catholic prayers, etc, etc.

          I think the only folks it really “worked’ for was Catholics.

          1. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            It is possible to attend religious schools Larry, without being “indoctrinated.” At least religious schools are honest at what they say is truth. They don’t hide behind fake intellectualism, and you have the free will to accept or reject those assertions.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            I think if they’re teaching the kids about the religion they – the operators of the school believe in – it’s likely indoctrination.

            If all kids are in the same classroom getting that instruction – “free will” is not in play.

          3. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            Wow. Then how come the nonstop mainstream narrative didn’t indoctrinate me? And also, based on your logic, since public K12 does secular humanism nonstop, then the kids are being indoctrinated…and contrary to what the parents wish.

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            No. You’d be wrong. They don’t “teach” secular humanism. They let the parents decide what kind of religion they want their kids to learn without interference or influence from the school.

            What you guys apparently want is the school deciding what religion and if the parents are not that religion, then, tough, don’t send their kids to that school – even though they’re paying taxes for school.

            In other words, a perversion of the concept of “school choice” – no choice at all if it’s Catholic and you’re Baptist or Muslim or Jewish.

          5. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            Larry – do you try to be wrong? That’s not what I am saying and they are teaching secular humanism. If they could just do straight education, but they don’t. I thought maybe you were a pseudonym for Dr. St. Fau(x)ci, but are you a shill for the teacher unions?
            The obvious best answer is to get to money following the kid and then you don’t have to be involved in mandating secular humanism. You really like ordering people around, don’t you?

          6. LarrytheG Avatar

            public schools do NOT teach secular humanism. That’s yet another wacadoodle canard with no basis in fact or truth.

            money won’t follow the kids as long as wacadoodles are involved in the discussions.

            It’s truly a dumb concept if you look at how these ‘schools” would actually stand up and operate. It takes millions to stand a new school up and millions more for staff. It won’t happen with a couple dozen kids signing up with their vouchers.

            You have to get the school up and running first – with money from sources other than “following the kid”.

          7. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            Yes, Larry. On the prairies of Nebraska in the late 1800s, millions was needed to l’arn them mouth breathing Christian types… What oh what would we do without John Dewey progressivism to “help.”
            CRT and DEI and ESG and SEL are all just figments of my imagination… they aren’t happening…and they all aren’t borne out of secular humanism…OK, then – Marxism. Happy now? Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt…

          8. LarrytheG Avatar

            it’s ain’t the 1800’s anymore , you know….

            The birth of public education was inherently progressivism. It’s an inherently progressive concept.

            But the wacadoodle thing is the idea that we take public money to fund private schools… just take taxes from people and give it to private schools… doesn’t sound very progressive, eh?

            Pretty sure that concept won’t fly with most taxpayers nor their reps in Richmond not even Youngkin and his VDOE even though the wackadoodles dream it.

          9. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            So what. I can’t help it if they are all too afraid of being called mean names to do something that works. No, let’s throw them into the useless waste of time public schools, wasting a ton of money, but making our teacher union friends wealthy enough to contribute to get me elected by keeping people stupid. Sounds like a winning plan.
            They did it better in the 1800s with less money…how, oh, how?
            I guess it was the unionized school marms in the one room schoolhouses…
            You live in unreality. All you can do is call an idea “wackadoodle” when it differs from the accepted narrative that doesn’t work. Now shall we move on to disarming the law-abiding since crooks obey laws and Uvalde proves that the police will protect you? Can I wager that you will be wrong on that one, too? I have carefully instructed my guns not to go shoot people, but you know they have minds of their own…

  2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Funding is the not immediate issue for a university to consider. First and foremost is how long it will take to establish given the four year cycle of Governor initiatives. We are now down to three. Time is the issue. Keep in mind the next Governor will control the budget that would include funding needed after start up and that, like the Opportunity Zone, funded by McDonnell, may be ripped apart.

    This is a sham that Democrats know won’t succeed so they gave the Gov what he wants knowing in all likelihood it will fail in the future and never really get off the ground.

    What we need for any long lasting future for school choice is a Governor that backs a constitutional amendment and accepts nothing less.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I’m not so pessimistic and I’m not a supporter of Youngkin but if Younkin has a successful four years, there’s a reasonable chance another GOP will win next time and/or even a Dem but one who is less far left.

      The Lab Schools, if done right, could gain support.

      I’d support them even though I’m opposed to church-related schools and pure voucher schools without accountability, etc.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      So, are you saying that Governor Youngkin has perpetrated a sham on his followers?

      1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
        Kathleen Smith

        No, the dems perpetrated a sham by agreeing to vote in the affirmative knowing it stands no chance of succeeding because the dems will wipe it out in another GA down the road.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          but why did Youngkin go along instead of calling it out like you are?

        2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          So, the person who proposed the funding for something that “stands no chance of succeeding” did not perpetrate a sham, but the Democrats who agreed to it did perpetrate a sham? What about the Republicans who agreed to the funding? Weren’t they also perpetrating a sham?

  3. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Also, I really liked the article.

  4. I don’t know if the experiment is “designed” to fail, as Walter suggests below, but I have limited expectations. From Dick’s description, the idea behind the lab schools is to conduct pedagogical experiments in the hope of finding innovative and effective ways to improve education. It doesn’t sound as if the Republicans supporting the bill understand it that way. They seem to see it as just another source of funding for special projects.

    The lab school legislation clearly was not enacted to create a kind of quasi-charter school. As I interpret it, the law enables interested parties to test new education theories. In the abstract, that is a positive. The K-12 system does need more experimentation, testing, and innovation.

    Whether Lab Schools fulfill that promise is a different question. I’m so soured on the educational establishment these days that I fear these programs would be subject to bureaucratic or ideological capture.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      advocacy for non-public schools that teach religion and/or have no equivalent SOL accountability are a big NO GO. Most Virginians are not going to go for that IMHO.

      folks who want Charters but do not also insist on accountability – I don’t understand.

      SCOTUS just ruled BTW in Maine that if they subsidize non-public schools they also have to subsidize religious schools:

      1. Chris Braunlich Avatar
        Chris Braunlich

        Couple comments:

        True charters (as in: in other states) are public schools but independently operated outside of local school systems. Students in those schools are required to take whatever state exams other public school students take (in our case, it would be the Standards of Learning exams) and the school is judged accordingly having laid out a 3-5 year set of goals and objectives which include the SOLs.

        I would agree with those who have said the college lab schools are not charter schools. They are more of a partnership between the higher education entity and the local school division.

        When I was president of the State Board of Education, George Mason University came to us with a superb proposal — except that they wanted to charge tuition for public school students outside of Fairfax County, discriminating against a child because they lived in Prince William. Stuff like that is precisely why the Governor proposed that “money follows the child” (since, in this case, PWC would no longer have the expense of educating the child). And those are precisely the reasons that innovation and opportunity are suffocated in Virginia.

        Finally, I suspect the “nonreligious” provisions of the college partnership lab schools will end up being stricken at some point by the Courts now that the Supreme Court has ruled in the Maine case. So, too, will the state’s two Blaine Amendments — amendments passed in dozens of states as a result of the anti-Catholic movements that once held the nation in its grip.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          I have some issues with some aspects.

          First, if these schools CAN be religious. what keeps those who want their kids to go to a religious school and want taxpayers to pay the tuition?

          Second, how do we assure that at-risk kids have equal access to these schools? And does it work like Success that once you ‘win’ the lottery, you’re in for the duration of K-12?

          Who runs the lotteries and are there standard and uniform rules , transparency and assurance that enrollment fairly represents the demographics of the population?

          Can a kid be kicked out and if so, what happens to the kid next – back to public school?

          That’s not all of the concerns but lastly, if the money “follows” the kid, is it just the state money but not the locality money? Where does the rest of the money come from or are these schools very lean and limited in what provide?
          Will extras like sports or music or special classes be “offered” for extra cost? How does the Federal money get allocated?

          all kinds of questions – not opposition – but significant questions that need clear answers, transparency and accountability.

          1. Chris Braunlich Avatar
            Chris Braunlich

            First, what do you mean by “these schools?”

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            I don’t see a prior mention of “these schools”. Can you be more specific?

          3. Chris Braunlich Avatar
            Chris Braunlich

            YOUR wording: “First, if these schools CAN be religious …”

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            these schools – lab schools or for that matter, any taxpayer-funded school….

        2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          You and several others have cited the Supreme Court’s decision in the Maine case as making the “nonreligious” aspect of lab schools vulnerable. It turns out that Maine may not have to provide funding to private, religious schools, after all. Last year, perhaps in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Maine legislature amended its Human Rights law to prohibit the provision of public funds to organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That provision applies to any private school, not just religion-affiliated ones. Therefore, there is no discrimination on the basis of religion. The two schools involved in the suit have said that, if the state enforces those provisions and requires them to modify their admissions standards to admit transgender students, for example, they will decline the state funding.

          As I noted in my article, the Virginia law has the same nondiscrimination provisions.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            re: “no discrimination based on religion”

            that sounds like something the religious schools would have to think about but typically what they would probably do is offer “opt-out’ on any prayers and/or lessons that were religious and the “opt-out” kids would stick out socially.

            I can envision some not good things for kids who are not the religion of the school.

            And again – hard to understand those who would want such a thing in the first place.

        3. Kathleen Smith Avatar
          Kathleen Smith

          One, money needs to follow the child. It doesn’t. Two, school choice has to go beyond lab schools to charters with a proven record of success and, three, there needs to be a constitutional amendment removing authority from local boards.

          That is all I can say.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      You are correct that the lab schools were not designed to be charter schools. The Youngkin administration is betting big that it can fit a square into the round hole. If done right, it has the potential to bring positive results. I am hoping it will succeed.

      1. Chris Braunlich Avatar
        Chris Braunlich

        Agreed, for sure. It will be a challenging slog, but could be very rewarding.

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Even a failure, if not so abject as to adversely affect the subjects, is a success — knowledge is knowledge.

      There’s not much room for “experiments” in K-12. Even the name K-12 suggests its rigidity, kids lumped by age, and bad enough parents freaking over library books. Imagine if (you fill in).

      One of the more advancing accidents for me personally was the result of mutual disgust between the JrHS band teacher and me (and my parental units) when I was in the 7th grade. After dropping band, something had to be done with me, so I was stuck in a 9th grade Geometry class. For me the rest was history. But was it because I had an aptitude, or because I was in a class of kids two years older?

      Lest anyone get the wrong idea, it was a disciplinary action, not an academic one. That class was small, and they had an empty chair. I did not get credit for being there.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Any idea of how many schools are possible given the available funding? IOW – how much does it cost to stand-up one “lab” school?

    and what’s the plan for deciding where the will be geographically?

    and will these schools have transportation, cafeteria, libraries, sports, etc?

    I think they are a decent compromise between public and charter and I like the requirement for accountability of performance but disappointed that they are pure lottery and not targeted for at-risk kids.

    I can see them becoming more like public schools, if they configure the curriculum for kids whose parents are well educated and economically secure.

    Thank you , once again, for writing a non-partisan, non-culture-war, objective article – the way BR ought to be.

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