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Youngkin likely to propose allowing private universities to run lab schools

A sign outside of a school reads, "Hampton University Child Development Center"
Hampton University's Child Development Center was formerly the site of a lab school that helped train future educators. That school closed in 1995, but lawmakers say Gov. Glenn Youngkin is considering a budget amendment that would allow private universities, like Hampton, to access new lab-school funding. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The state budget currently includes $100 million for lab schools — but it’s still subject to amendments by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin's office formally received the budget last week, and the governor now has until this Thursday to submit amendments and vetoes.

The current budget draft only allows the lab-school funding to be utilized by public, four-year Virginia universities, excluding private colleges and community colleges. Initially, legislators discussed allowing certain private universities and two-year public colleges to participate.

In January, 27 Virginia universities signed a “collaborative agreement” with the state to “advocate for the expansion of Virginia’s College Partnership Lab School law to allow all public and private Virginia colleges to create Lab Schools.” The universities also signaled their interest in developing design concepts to “present to the people of Virginia by May 2022.”

Several schools that signed the agreement were private, TAG-eligible universities. TAG is a state-funded tuition subsidy program started in 1972 that provides tuition grants to students at qualifying private, nonprofit Virginia colleges. The grants are not need-based, and the state awards chosen students a maximum of a few thousand dollars per semester; the maximum per-semester award for the 2021-22 school year was $4,000.

“Academic programs that lead to a career in theology or religion are excluded [from TAG eligibility],” said Lee Andes, associate director for financial aid with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. “It's okay if it's a program teaching about religion or theology.”

Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) told VPM News he expects Youngkin will suggest budget changes to expand lab-school eligibility to both TAG-eligible and non-TAG-eligible private universities.

 “I think it was just overlooked when the budget language came forward,” Davis said. “So, I think we'll be correcting that in the amendment coming down from the governor's office.”

Youngkin also hinted at a press event in Bristol earlier this week that he might tweak the budget’s language to “make it easier for lab schools to sprout across the commonwealth, ” according to the Washington Post.

“I'll be watching very closely to make sure they don't try to turn this into charter schools,” state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) told VPM News last week. “Lab schools are supposed to be partnerships to allow our higher-ed universities and our public schools to test out new teaching pedagogy and innovative ways of learning. And they should not be expanded beyond that model.”

Legislation to change Virginia’s charter school laws failed to pass earlier this year, but lawmakers did finally approve a narrow expansion of the state’s lab school law – which is currently limited to teacher-training programs.

Davis sponsored one of those lab-school bills. It would remove the teacher education requirement and allow other university departments to partner with local school districts to focus on career and technical education or other areas like science, technology, engineering and math. However, Davis told VPM News these changes aren’t likely to become law even though lawmakers from both chambers voted to approve them because negotiations to iron out differences between the versions passed by the House and Senate have stalled out.

Still, Davis said the budget language will allow the governor’s lab school design challenge to move forward.

​​”I think everything that needs to transpire to allow lab schools to move forward has transpired inside the budget language,” Davis said.

Hampton's former lab school

Hampton University is a private, historically Black university in Virginia that is TAG-eligible. The school was the site of a lab school in the 1990s, which, according to a 1995 article in the Virginian-Pilot, educated about 200 children from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. It was described by some Hampton education students as a crown jewel; over half of Hampton’s education students either student-taught or volunteered at the school.

But the 1995 article stated the lab school would close the following summer, and quoted Hampton's dean of liberal arts and education, Carlton E. Brown, as saying “the lab school offers too sheltered a setting to truly prepare education majors for working in public schools.”

Joy Hernandez is director of the Hampton University Child Development Center, which is housed in the same building where the old lab school was located. The center charges tuition for local students, which lab schools can’t currently do under state law. The current law allows lab schools to charge tuition only to students who live outside of the city or county in which the school is located.

“I consider it a lab school still, because we are still doing research. It's still being conducted here,” Hernandez said. “We still have students that do it here, we still have universities to come and partner with us and do [research] here. They’re looking at social-emotional development, they're looking at different types of learning, what is best for children, they look at their movements, they look at how the children move…they want to see how children respond to certain things. So all that is already taking place here. We just need to have more resources.”

Because Hampton University, which signed the state’s lab-school agreement, doesn’t have a school of education now, it would likely have to partner with another university to formally submit a lab school proposal under the current law. Hernandez said she’s open to that and hopes to put forward a proposal.

Hernandez said the child development center is currently underutilized and some classrooms stand empty. She pointed out that it would cost millions of dollars to build something like the current facility today; funding for new lab-school infrastructure has been a sticking point in the legislature. And Hampton’s child development center has a unique circular shape and design, which includes observation rooms built into classrooms and a whole second floor built as an observation space.

“Where will you find a place like this elsewhere? Not here in this area,” Hernandez said. “It could become a state-of-the-art, unique lab school.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.