As Virginia moves forward with lab-school applications, funding for private schools unclear

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Institutions interested in establishing K-12 lab schools can soon begin applying for $5 million in public funding to help prepare school design proposals under rules approved by the Virginia Board of Education on Wednesday.

The nine-member State Board of Education approved guidelines this could allow institutions wishing to establish the schools to begin submitting formal requests for funds by the end of the month.

But the council’s approval may not resolve legal questions about whether private institutions — like Liberty University — and community colleges are eligible to apply for the planning grants and a larger $95 million pot earmarked for the opening and operation of schools.

Lab schools have become a major part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to add more choice to public education, prepare students for college and the workforce, and increase innovation — as the Republican he himself pointed this out during a brief appearance at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Former state law required a lab school to be attached to a public four-year college or university, but this year’s General Assembly expanded school eligibility to include private schools, community colleges and other institutions of higher education.

The debate has centered on whether private schools and community colleges are also eligible for public funds.

Education Secretary Aimee Guidera and Board Chairman Daniel Gecker — who was nominated by Youngkin’s Democratic predecessors — said they had received legal advice that private schools and community colleges could request funds based on their reading of the state budget. Guidera also highlighted an August 10 letter of Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to Youngkin saying lawmakers intend to go that route.

But two staff attorneys working for the Legislative Services Division said the new state budget only allowed the money to go to “a public higher education center, institute or authority” when of a July 28 meeting. letter to Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), chair of the Senate Finance Committee. And a staffer for Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax), who worked alongside Howell and Knight to negotiate the budget, said in an email that the legislature’s intention was for the funding to go exclusively to public institutions.

Guidera and Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach), a key lab school supporter, said if there was a problem, the legislature could make technical fixes during its session next year.

“The most important thing is to continue to move things forward as quickly as possible so that we don’t lose momentum,” Davis told the board on Wednesday.

But Chad Stewart – a policy analyst with the Virginia Education Association, which advocates for teachers – said moving forward could have unfortunate consequences.

“In order to avoid confusion and wasting time with ineligible institutions, we urge board members to wait for an updated and corrected copy of the guidelines before receiving materials for first review,” he said. Stewart told the board.

Any $100 million in funding not used by 2024 would be returned to the state’s general fund, meaning the Department of Education will have to work quickly to distribute the money.

Guidera said she expected broad competition for funding.

A slide she presented shows a mix of 20 colleges and universities, 12 community colleges and four higher education centers, including the New college institute in Martinville. Guidera said the Department of Education hopes to distribute 25 planning grants and will encourage local applicants to collaborate.

“We’re going to be strategic and encourage people to work together,” she said.

Guidera also said corporate groups, including Google, Amazon and Lego, want to fund lab schools or get involved in efforts to create them. And she added that philanthropic groups have also expressed interest in sustainable funding.

“What we hope is that no plan is approved that does not address a sustainability issue,” Guidera said. “Because it’s not a blitz in the pan approach.”

Some Democratic lawmakers have been more critical of lab schools, arguing they risk diverting resources and attention from public schools that remain underfunded.

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