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

Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera
Steve Helber/AP
Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera, announces a Department of Education report on education in May 2022. Guidera, along with state Board of Education president Daniel Gecker, said she received legal guidance that the state's lab-school funding is open to private schools and community colleges. (File photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Institutions interested in setting up K-12 laboratory schools can soon begin applying for $5 million in state 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 that could allow institutions that want to set up the schools to begin submitting formal requests for the funds by the end of the month.

But the board’s approval might not resolve legal questions over whether private institutions — like Liberty University — and community colleges  are eligible to apply for the planning grants and a broader pot of $95 million set aside for opening and operating the schools.

Lab schools have become a major prong of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s push to add more choice to public education, prepare students for college and the workforce, and increase innovation — as the Republican himself emphasized in a brief appearance at the Wednesday board meeting.

Past state law required a lab school to be attached to a public, four-year college or university, but the General Assembly this year broadened the eligibility for the schools to include private schools, community colleges and other higher education institutions.

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

Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera and board president Daniel Gecker — who was appointed by Youngkin’s Democratic predecessors — said they’d received legal guidance that private schools and community colleges could apply for funds based on their reading of the state budget. Guidera also pointed to an Aug. 10 letter from Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), chairperson of the House Appropriations Committee, to Youngkin stating that lawmakers intended to go that route.

But two staff attorneys working for the Division of Legislative Services said the new state budget only allows the money to go toward “a public higher education center, institute, or authority” in a July 28 letter to Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), chairperson 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 intent was for the funding to go exclusively to public institutions.

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

“The most important thing is to continue moving this forward as fast as possible to not lose the momentum,” Davis told the board Wednesday.

But Chad Stewart — a policy analyst with the Virginia Education Association, which advocates on behalf of teachers — said moving forward could have unfortunate consequences.

“In order to avoid confusion and potentially wasting time with institutions that do not qualify, we urge members of the board to wait for an updated, corrected copy of the guidelines before receiving the documents for first review,” Stewart told the board.

Any of the $100 million in funding left unused by 2024 would be returned to the state’s general fund, meaning the department of education will need to work quickly to distribute the money.

Guidera said she expected broad competition for the funding.

A slide she presented showed a mix of 20 colleges and universities, 12 community colleges and four higher education centers, including the New College Institute in Martinsville. 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, were interested in funding lab schools or getting involved in efforts to set them up. And she said philanthropic groups have expressed interest in sustainable funding as well.

“What we hope is that no plans are approved that do not deal with a sustainability issue,” Guidera said. “Because this is not a flash-in-the-pan approach.”

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

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.