Lab Schools — Vo-cation or Woke-ation?

In 1896 educator John Dewey launched one of the first laboratory schools in the U.S., in association with the University of Chicago, as a “progressive” educational institution.

by James A. Bacon

It took the state Senate no time this session — 10 minutes, to be exact, reports The Virginia Mercury — to dispense with proposed legislation to make it easier to start charter schools in Virginia. Now Governor Glenn Youngkin is pinning his hopes for promoting school choice upon the idea of laboratory schools — K-12 academies developed in partnership with colleges and universities.

This idea is not dead on arrival, but any lab school legislation will entail a lot of horse- trading to pass. The Mercury has done an excellent job of describing the wide range of issues involved. Where will $150 million in funding that Youngkin proposes come from? Will school districts be made fiscally whole from the diversion of students to these lab schools? What criteria should be used to set up lab schools, and how will they be held accountable for performance?

What is a “lab school” anyway? Lab schools have been around since the late 19th century. In the 1930s, they focused mainly on teacher training and educational research. As the concept evolved, they expanded to new pedagogies such as hands-on industrial training. Under current Virginia code, the programs can be founded only by colleges or universities with teacher training programs. Bills backed by the Youngkin administration would repeal that requirement.

Youngkin has described his envisioned school thusly: “It’s a new school, or a converted existing school, that partners with a university, with a college, with a community college to focus on innovative curriculum. And what is that innovative curriculum? That’s what we’re going to ask everybody to go to work on.”

I’m all in favor of experimenting with new educational models. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that experimentation is crucial. But I’m concerned that, if legislation is enacted, Youngkin could end up with lab schools experimenting with concepts that are the diametric opposite of what he’s looking for. He’s trying to free public schools from leftist pedagogy; but lab schools could import the same teaching philosophy through the back door.

Under Virginia code, charter schools are overseen by management committees that include parents, teachers, administrators and community sponsors. Lab schools, by contrast, are overseen by governing boards of the universities operating the programs.

The Virginia Department of Education has a “College Partnership Laboratory Schools Committee” which has not met since 2013. At that time it considered an application to create an innovation academy attached to George Mason University, “not changing WHAT kids learn, but how/when they learn it (changing pedagogical processes to focus on content vs. seat time).” Apparently, it never got off the ground. At present, there are no lab schools operating in Virginia. 

Consider the possibilities of turning over charter schools to the tender mercies of the higher-education establishment.

Virginia’s public universities are incubators of wokeness. Critical Race Theory is literally taught in law schools. The Diversity & Inclusion movement has morphed from a form of affirmative action into a social-justice movement to advance “equity,” or the eradication of differences in group outcomes through what amounts to reverse discrimination. “Diversity statements,” which function effectively as modern-day loyalty oaths to diversity dogma, are becoming the norm. Hiring and promotion practices are driving political conservatives and even moderates out of academia. And, aside from law schools, perhaps, the most militant of the woke are the education schools.

Does Youngkin seriously propose turning over $150 million to this crowd to introduce experimental pedagogies to our children… accountable only to university boards that have allowed their institutions to be re-made as leftist intellectual monocultures?

From a “social justice” perspective, lab schools must sound like a social engineer’s dream come true. There will be no lack of creative ideas on how to spend that money on programs based on leftist pedagogy. Given the state of higher education today, can one imagine a single lab school devoted to advancing conservative pedagogy such as, say, classical education?

Perhaps Youngkin has considered all of this. Clearly, he sees a role for private- sector involvement akin to Newport News Shipbuilding’s apprenticeship program. But who is better positioned to ramp up quickly to make a play for that $150 million? Writing grant proposals is what education schools do all day long. It would be a tragedy if Youngkin’s top initiative to bring school choice to Virginia ended up subsidizing the left-wing pedagogy that he was elected to oppose.