Virginia allocated $100 million earlier this year to launch university-partnered lab schools across the state. While budget wording limits the recipients of the funds to public colleges, Education Secretary Aimee Guidera wants to offer the money to private schools as well.

Democratic members of the Senate Appropriations and Finance Committee on Wednesday pushed back against opening up the funds to private colleges, saying the law does not allow it.

Virginia Union plans $100 million innovation center and campus expansion

Some private schools, including Virginia Union University and Liberty University, have expressed interest in opening lab schools, and the future of their efforts may hang in the balance.

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“What matters is the language that was put in the budget and signed off by the governor, which is unambiguous,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

In June, Governor Glenn Youngkin signed a budget that includes $100 million to help launch Lab Schools — free K-12 public schools that have the freedom to innovate and control their own budgets. .

Lab schools could open as early as next fall in Virginia

The wording of the budget only allows public colleges in Virginia to receive the funds. This limitation was written on purpose, said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax. The state should see if lab schools work for public schools before opening up funding to private schools, Barker said. He added that private colleges should not receive funding when some K-12 school divisions are still in need.

“That tongue isn’t spongy,” Barker said. “This language is very clear as to what it means.”

But Guidera said the administration had a different view. The budget also included a clause that redefines lab schools generally as institutions built by public or private colleges. Attorney General Jason Miyares has not issued an opinion on the matter.

Two lawyers from the Legislative Services Division wrote in July, saying the more restrictive budget language that bars private schools from receiving the funds takes precedence.

It is unclear whether private colleges would be forced to stop their efforts without funding. A Virginia Union spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Virginia State and Virginia Union universities plan to open lab schools

Last month, Guidera said she would like to see lab schools open as early as next fall. On Wednesday, she offered a more tempered prediction, saying a couple could open in fall 2023 but the majority will likely open in fall 2024.

Proponents of lab schools say some students aren’t getting a high-quality education and need an alternative. Some schools do very well, Guidera said. But excellence isn’t “available to every family in Virginia.”

Barker challenged the idea that Virginia’s K-12 public school system is underperforming.

“I’m taking a bit of an exception saying we let our students down,” Barker said. “In reality, our school divisions are not letting our students down.”

Lab schools would provide opportunities for children to learn in different ways, Guidera said. Companies such as Microsoft, Alphabet Inc., owner of Google, and Amazon have pledged financial aid, employees to staff schools or classrooms. Each school might have a different approach or goal.

The administration would like to see colleges partner with K-12 school districts, nonprofits, museums and other entities. Virginia Union University intends to partner with Richmond Public Schools, a university spokesperson said. Virginia State University, which is public, intends to partner with Petersburg schools.

Guidera has promised that no money will leave public school systems to fund their lab schools.

Schools will likely launch in existing buildings. Colleges cannot use public funds to erect new buildings for their lab schools.

No college has yet submitted an application, Guidera said.