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Lab schools join charter schools as state pushes new alternatives

A state push to open more lab schools, those backed by universities or colleges rather than local school boards, is raising more questions than answers.

Bills proposed in the current legislative session would allow a university or college without a teacher education program to start a lab school. Currently, universities with a teacher education program can open schools pursuant to a 2010 law, though not many jumped at that opportunity.

Documents obtained by Virginia Public Media show Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to have at least 20 lab schools open by the 2023-24 school year. His office told the Washington Post there are no lab schools in the state. He’s proposed budgeting $150 million to support that goal.

Bob Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, said he’s currently talking with officials about potentially putting in a proposal for a UVa-run lab school under legislation currently making its way through the General Assembly.

Yet Pianta has questions about the financial sustainability of the lab schools and how the schools would affect partnerships with local school divisions.

“We have tremendous partnerships with Albemarle and Charlottesville and we want to really respect those partnerships,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize those partnerships. Anything right now that makes life more administratively or financially complicated is tricky.”

Pianta added that he wants to be careful not to add more time and effort for local school divisions unless the lab school is in their interest as well.

“I’m just really mindful of how burdened our public education system and educators have been, and the timing of it is tough,” he said.

Virginia currently has seven charter schools, including Community Lab School in Albemarle County, which is overseen by the county school board. A charter school is considered a public school in state code and is subject to the same state accountability requirements. However, the schools tend to have more flexibility in how they deliver instruction.

A suite of bills in the General Assembly this year aimed at expanding charter schools have failed so far, but legislation to expand lab schools has moved forward, supported by lawmakers from both parties.

A Senate bill from Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, and backed by several education associations and a bipartisan group of lawmakers would allow more non-profit universities and colleges to start lab schools, though in cooperation with local school boards.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said that Senate bill was a watered down version of an earlier lab school proposal that calls for a specific source of funding. Deeds ended up supporting the bill.

“The danger for something like a charter school or a lab school is that the funding would come out of local school dollars, and local schools are inadequately funded,” he said. “Instead of tearing the school system down and creating new challenges, we need to be building our public schools up, and that’s going to require that we come up with more money.”

The House bill from Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, would open up lab school opportunities to any university or college but doesn’t explain how they would be funded.

“This is obviously a tremendous opportunity in the Commonwealth for students, but we have to get the details right,” Davis said. “And there’s still a lot of conversation around the details.”

Supporters of the expansion have said lab schools will help bring more innovation into K-12 education. Opponents of expanding charter schools in Virginia say charter schools undermine traditional public schools.

“I think we should have some realistic expectations that these schools can improve outcomes for kids, but they’re not going to solve all of our educational problems,” said Jim Wyckoff, director of UVa’s Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness. “Nor are they going to be a cheap fix where we can solve problems without spending money.”

‘Not a monolith’

Despite its name, the Community Lab School is not a lab school under the definition in state law. Rather, it is a charter school run and funded by the county school division.

Principal Chad Ratliff said the school works with universities to implement evidence-based practices and then share what they learned. That’s different from lab schools, which are run by universities and colleges and supervised by local school boards.

Community Lab, which serves about 200 students from grades six to 12, takes a student-centered and project-based approach to teaching and learning and has partnered with the University of Virginia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on different efforts.

Ratliff said they don’t want to be a boutique school with an approach that only works at the school. They want instead to create examples to help other schools adopt the Community Lab’s successes.

“We’re producing prototypes which the other schools are able,” he said. “It’s not a direct replication model. It’s not like we’ve come up with an answer. We’ve come up with an example.”

Currently, school boards are the main authorizers of charter schools in the state, so that means Community Lab is considered part of the school division. Facility maintenance, human resources and transportation are all provided to the school, which is an advantage of the current model, Ratliff said.

“It’s noncompetitive,” Ratliff said. “In fact, it’s highly collaborative. We benefit each other.”

The proposed bills wouldn’t affect Community Lab’s model and Ratliff was not consulted on any of the bills regarding charter schools. If he were, Ratliff said he would use Community Lab as an example for how charter schools can work as originally intended.

“They provide families choice with regard to different instructional or pedagogical options, experiences for students,” he said. “School choice is student choice and family choice. You get the benefit of working with universities so you give them the benefit of that lab school model and the benefit of the resources that we have here in Albemarle County Public Schools.”

The current model at Community Lab School is working, Ratliff said, pointing to an increase in student interest. For next school year, the school received three times as many applications as spots. When student interest exceeds their capacity, acceptance to the school is determined via a random lottery.

The school initially began as an alternative school in 1988, created by a group of teachers and the division as a way to provide a non-traditional school. It was later converted to a charter school in 1991.

Once a year, Ratliff shares an annual report with the School Board, which is one measure of accountability. But he said the biggest metric of performance is whether students and families want to attend the school.

“We do have that same level of vote-with-your-feet accountability that any charter school, regardless of organizational structure, must have,” he said. “It does create that sort of a different level of accountability in that regard.”

Ratliff said that a charter or lab school is not a specific kind of learning but rather an organizational structure.

“In reality, some charter schools are good, and some charter schools are not performing very well across the country,” he said. “When we’re thinking about that, it’s not a monolith.”

Looking at charter or lab schools through the lens of good or bad is the wrong idea, he said.

“It’s what problem you are trying to solve and what is it you are trying to offer families and then how might we have more opportunities like that?” he said.

‘Tough model to sustain’

UVa’s Wyckoff said that an effective charter school policy depends on how intentional the plan is toward the problem it is trying to solve and how it is implemented.

“I think kids are low-performing in Virginia, like lots of other places in our country, for a really complex set of reasons, and I don’t think we should naively believe that just implementing charter schools is going to fix that problem,” he said.

If the state moves forward with charter schools, he said the schools need to be well-funded and able to provide students with educational opportunities that are lacking. Those authorizing the schools also should know how to effectively design and run them.

He’d like to see a measured approach to the expansion that looks at evidence of success, such as student outcomes, at each particular school.

Pianta said charter schools are a mixed bag nationally in terms of quality and effectiveness.

“The differences particularly on achievement between kids who graduated from charter schools and kids who graduate from public schools is really kind of negligible,” he said.

Pianta said the current code for charter schools is restrictive and sees the lab school legislation as a specific way of addressing that problem.

The Senate bill would require universities to explain how they’ll cooperate with local school boards in the creation and operation of the college partnership model. Additionally, students who attend the lab schools would be counted as students in the local division, so the school systems wouldn’t lose state or local funding.

Each lab school would be overseen and operated by a governing board.

Under the Senate version, the Virginia Board of Education would approve contracts for lab schools, which will have terms of at least five years.

Davis, who chairs the House Education Committee, said that his goal is to bring more innovation, whether it’s from higher education or the private sector, into the K-12 curriculum and better prepare students for a high-paying 21st Century career.

He said governing boards will ensure the schools are set up to meet the specific needs of their students.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you want to call these schools,” Davis said. “What matters is that we have a pathway for students, regardless of zip code, to receive a first-class education, and to bring innovation into the classroom to better prepare our students upon graduation.”


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