Va. Gov. Youngkin hints at budget amendments on education, gas tax

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BRISTOL, Va. — For the first time in about a half century, this rural community on the Tennessee border has scrounged up what it needs to build a new elementary school to replace three moldy, leaking campuses that are well past their expiration dates.

That achievement alone might have lured any governor some 324 miles from the capital to plunge a shiny gold shovel into Southwest Virginia dirt. But it’s how local officials financed the project — with a public-private partnership — that made Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) especially eager to celebrate the groundbreaking Monday morning, when he hinted that he’ll tinker with the state budget to push for “lab schools” and cut the gas tax.

“When we bring together the private sector and the public sector, great things happen,” the former private equity executive told a gathering of local dignitaries, state legislators and schoolchildren, who took home keepsake vials of soil. “If we look to government to come up with every solution, friends, we’re not going to get where we want to go. And when we bring the private sector and the public sector together to innovate and create, amazing things can happen.”

Youngkin used that appearance and a second stop in the region Monday afternoon to highlight his interest in public-private partnerships in K-12 education, specifically through the establishment of lab schools, which would pair colleges and possibly private businesses with public K-12 schools.

Youngkin summons higher education leaders to help promote his plan for ‘lab school’ partnerships

He hinted that he could advance that goal by amending the state budget bill making its way to his desk — which includes $100 million for lab schools, even though related lab-school legislation seems destined to die in a conference committee.

As an aside in Bristol, Youngkin also indicated that he plans to find a way to cut the gas tax despite the General Assembly’s unwillingness to go along with that effort in the budget.

“We have a chance to get out of neutral,” Youngkin said, referring to efforts to improve education. “I’m telling you, the commonwealth of Virginia has shifted into high gear and this car can drive. Unfortunately, we’ve got to pay $4.75 for gas. We’re doing everything we can about that, too. Let me tell you, I’m not done on the gas tax, folks. I’m not done.”

Youngkin had urged the General Assembly to halt a scheduled increase in the state’s gas tax and to grant a five-month gas-tax holiday, suspending it fully for three months and partially for an additional two. Neither plan was included in the budget bill passed last week by the General Assembly.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach) has urged the governor not to tinker with the budget, which emerged after months of negotiations with his counterpart in the Democratic-controlled Senate, Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), chairwoman of her chamber’s Finance and Appropriations Committee.

Knight declined to comment.

A political newcomer, Youngkin ran for governor last year by leaning into K-12 culture wars over how schools approach racial history and racial sensitivity. He also promised to promote “choice” in education, through charter schools or lab schools, which he touts as sources of innovation.

Democrats call both a potential threat to public schools and have been especially wary of any plan to allow the private sector into public classrooms.

Lab schools are allowed under existing state law passed so long ago that some current legislators are graduates of them. But they can be operated only by public, four-year colleges or universities with teacher training programs. Perhaps because of those restrictions, the state currently has none.

Legislation introduced in the General Assembly this year sought to loosen some of those requirements, allowing private or public colleges to participate, regardless of whether they have teacher-training programs.

Youngkin is making his renewed push as prospects for lab schools in the state seem oddly mixed. The two lab school bills appear destined to die in a conference committee, with negotiators unable since March to overcome their differences. Yet the two-year budget bill the General Assembly passed last week included $100 million to establish the schools — a provision that a handful of budget negotiators slipped into the plan to the chagrin of some Democrats.

Youngkin hinted Monday that with some tweaks to the budget language, he could make it easier for lab schools to sprout across the commonwealth.

“To have the funds in the House Bill 30 really matters and that means we can go to work,” he said. “And so I’m very excited about that. I do think that there are a few things that we need to fix with regards to the scope of what we can do.”

That was good news to Keith Perrigan, Bristol Public Schools superintendent. “We didn’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s go build a lab school,’ but if there’s a $100 million, I think we’re in,” he told the governor during his afternoon visit with area K-12 and higher education leaders at Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, a conference center and remote learning site for a number of colleges in Abingdon.

Sen. Todd E. Pillion (R-Washington), who sponsored the Senate bill and attended the groundbreaking in Bristol, told the crowd that the $100 million for the schools presents “an exciting opportunity for new approaches.”

Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), who did not attend but sponsored the House bill, said the budget language might be enough to kick off the effort. “Arguably we don’t need the legislation,” Davis said. But he allowed that relying on budget language is not the most durable approach, since the language will expire at the end of the two-year budget cycle.

State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), one of the negotiators on the lab school bills, thinks the $100 million set aside for them would be better spent for school staff, such as social workers, nurses and custodians.

“My priority would have been supporting the schools that already exist rather than creating new ones,” she said.