Virginia lab school bill still being debated, for-profit provision among disagreements

(The Center Square) – Virginia legislation to create K-12 laboratory schools is still being debated by House and Senate lawmakers with one of the primary disputes being whether the state should allow for-profit institutions to operate any schools.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin entered a partnership with more than 30 different colleges and universities to jointly express their intent to support lab schools. Such schools would be publicly funded K-12 schools run by higher education institutions. The schools would be legally defined as public schools and focus on testing different education models and studying how various models affect how students learn.

The House of Delegates passed its version of the legislation, which allowed public, non-profit and for-profit entities to file applications with the state to run a lab school. The version that passed the Senate would allow public and non-profit entities to run lab schools, but would prohibit for-profit entities from running such schools. The House is narrowly controlled by Republicans and the Senate is narrowly controlled by Democrats.

Functionally, a lab school would be similar to a charter school, but would be regulated differently. In Virginia, a for-profit entity is allowed to run a charter school, but all charter school proposals must receive approval from the local school board. Lab schools would not need local approval, but would rather be approved by the Virginia Board of Education.

Because lab schools would be legally classified as public schools, opponents of for-profit entities running such schools argue that public money and public education should not be operated by entities that are making a profit. However, charter schools are legally defined as public schools and the prohibition does not exist. Those who support allowing for-profit entities to run charter schools argue that it would increase competition and provide more options for parents and students.

Another dispute between the two versions of this legislation focuses on how the lab school program would affect funding for traditional public schools. Because the public school funding formula partially bases funding on student population, the formula would automatically redirect money away from traditional schools and toward the lab schools, unless a provision in the bill specifically prevents that. The House version would allow the funds to simply be redirected, but the Senate version would ensure that traditional public schools do not lose funding if students leave to attend a lab school.

Because the lab school program would have financial implications, lawmakers need to settle on a budget bill before they pass a lab school bill. Although the original deadline was mid-March, lawmakers could not reach a budget agreement. House and Senate members are still in a joint conference committee to settle those differences.