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Youngkin’s Charter-Lab Schools Push in 2024

The Problem

Two hundred thirty-three amendments: there are so many problems with the Governor’s amendments to the bipartisan budget that it’s hard to know where to start. I mean, who thinks to take retirement funds out of the school buildings and repairs budget

Governor and Mrs. Youngkin and Sec. of Ed Aimee Guidera at VCU-CodeVA Lab School opening.
Governor and Mrs. Youngkin and Sec. of Ed Aimee Guidera at VCU-CodeVA Lab School opening.

Governor Youngkin’s administration has been fraught with various forms of misrepresentation, from iffy sole source consultant procurement practices to stacking commissions and boards with conflict of interest candidates, but no initiative has been more flawed than his dream project of establishing 20 charter/Lab schools during his term of office. 

Still, Governor Youngkin is determined to open the gates for creating independently run but publicly funded charters in the state of Virginia, and to place authorization firmly at the state level.

Currently, the Governor’s appointees are scrambling to convince universities to submit applications and are changing the approval process to fast track approval of lab schools by removing first review, which limits public input and reduces process transparency. They are desperately trying to get as many as possible in the hopper before June 30 in the hopes that the renewed interest will convince the legislature to approve Governor Youngkin’s $85 million he would like to have for Charter-Lab school implementation.

The Current Situation

From the beginning in 2022, Education Secretary Guidera toured the state creating rosy pictures announcing Lab-Charters that would open in Fall 2023 at universities that had not yet submitted even a planning grant application. 

In spite of those glowing promises that 13 Lab Schools might open by fall 2023, by December 2023, only one school, the VCU-CODEVA program was near opening in January 2024 and that “school” incorporated two programs that had already existed. 

Of the 23 planning grant applications only 5 had moved forward to apply for an actual implementation grant, and the legislature declined to reauthorize the remaining $85M in seed money due to expire on June 30. 

The stated goal of the Charter-Labs has been to create innovation and to serve under-served or at-risk students. However, most of the applications piggy back on programs that already exist such as AVID, Dual Enrollment, Coding, and career Health Science courses, and the lottery selection process for “at-risk” students is unclear in at least some of the program profiles. Thus, they are nothing innovative and it is unknown if they will serve the targeted populations.

In a last ditch effort to reinvigorate the initiative, Youngkin restored $85 million in his April 2024 budget amendments. He and Secretary of Ed Guidera launched another media blitz appealing for the funding by pushing districts that opted out to reconsider and pursue a Lab School. Two more were authorized in early April and just Thursday (April 11th) the five person Lab School standing committee voted to by-pass first review of applications to expedite quick approvals. Unfortunately, the latest publicity matches reality even less than the initial stories. 

Looking at all of the options

The refusal to abide by the Lab-Charters restrictions have bordered on violation of the laws from the beginning. To get the budget seed money of $100 million, the initial agreement between the administration and the legislature were for lab schools that could be sponsored by the 14 public four year universities joining with local school districts. The other critical limitation was that this $100 million needed to be spent by July 1, 2024 or returned to the general fund. Those agreements were ignored.

Across the two years, the Lab-Charter committee and Board of Education have expanded eligibility to 27 private universities including Liberty University, Marymount University, and George Washington University, 23 community colleges, and to the 5 state regional Institutes and Centers. The partnering units are now virtually any post-high school institution and any approved partnering entity including employers and independent specialty training programs. 

Secretary Guidera has talked about 23 schools that will serve 4000 students. But the reality is less than one-third of her projection. 

  • Of the 7 Universities that have completed the required $5 million implementation applications for start up, the required detailed budgets for the first year and 5-year contract period are there but leave many questions.

  • Most of the 7 applicants propose programs that will serve under 100 students each of the first two years, (with the exception of UVA which is proposing to offer 7th graders in Charlottesville a career exploration course). JMU’s application anticipates serving 600 students divided across 5 districts five years from now. 

Another concern is staffing costs, including expensive directors serving a small population of students. For example, many of the 7 applicants expect to employ a full time Executive Director and substantial implementation staff (6-8) while still relying on college student interns and the local district teachers to supply core instruction. It is unclear how the per-pupil dollars given to the Lab-Charter will affect the state’s allocation of per-pupil funding to the local district or how those programs will be funded once the $85 million is spent. 

Most of the 7 Charter-Lab applications say they will be ready to start or soft-launch in August 2024, which is after the funding deadline, with staff in place and students identified and admitted. As of April 2024, it was unclear from most the applications how that would be achieved.

Just to juxtapose numbers

Gov. Youngkin’s budget amendments cut the At-Risk Add-on which would serve 247 of the lowest income communities (over 123,000 students)  across the commonwealth from $300 million to $96 million (the current level of funding), while the Charter-Lab $85 million would serve under 1000 students in year one, and under 1500 in year two. 

When we look at the programs 

The Charter-Lab school applicants want to provide and ask: “Who is served and what is offered in Virginia now?”: 

  • According to JLARC 42,000 students already take Dual Enrollment Courses each year. 

  • 16 of the Virginia community colleges offer an Associates degree in Early Childhood Development (pre-K teacher training).

  • 5,662 students now take AP computer science courses, and 785 students take CodeVA programs or workshops. 

  • There are 89 AVID sites in Virginia schools which would reflect approximately 1,700 or more students. 

  • 24 Community College sites across Virginia offer welding programs.

  • Virginia currently has 9 Governor’s Health Science Academies which provide Health Sciences career and technical education. 

Should Virginia seek to provide more access to great opportunities like these to high school students? Absolutely. 

The Why?

However, if we already have most of these programs available, why create a completely separate administrative staff and pseudo-schools to serve such a small sample of students, students who would probably be the enrollees for the existing programs? 

The simple answer to this “Why?” for Youngkin is to create a state-level charter school authorization Standing Committee that can bypass the Virginia Constitution and local districts that insist on things like the viability of programming and responsible budgets–that has been the dream of Glenn Youngkin… to take public education into his hands and have state-run schools that serve few students while taking taxpayer funds from local schools.


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