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Exploring and Expanding School Choice With Charter and Laboratory Schools

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU Wilder School 
July 22, 2022

The pandemic has led many to reconsider their previous ways of working, learning and interacting with others. For some parents, this has led to questioning if traditional public schools are the best choice for their family, or if an alternate type of school may be preferable. Charter schools and laboratory schools offer an alternative option to traditional public school, and are becoming primary topics of education policy debates across the country.

About 3 million children in the United States attend a charter school, which are tuition-free and publicly funded. However, their operating model also provides for more autonomy and students may apply to a charter school regardless of where they live (thus, some argue, providing greater school choice for families). While many support this increased autonomy and choice, others are opposed. Opponents argue that charter schools (as well as other schooling alternatives) take funding away from traditional public schools, while others worry about a lack of transparency or the possibility that a charter school may be operated by a for-profit entity.

In Virginia, there were seven charter schools in existence in 2021 and, as of December 2021, more than half of Virginians (52 percent) supported the idea of increasing the number of charter schools in the commonwealth, while 34 percent opposed an increase, according to findings released in January 2022 from the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll.

The poll was conducted from December 13-30, 2021, and consisted of a representative sample of adults, ages 18 or older living in Virginia. Data was collected via telephone interviews (landline and cellphone), and the poll had a margin of error of +/- 4.9 percentage points.

Support for charter schools was higher among Republicans, with 65 percent in support of increased funding, than among Democrats (36 percent supported increased funding) and independents (59 percent supported increased funding). Those in lower income brackets, those with lower levels of education and males were also more likely to support increased funding for charter schools. There was not a significant difference in support based on race/ethnicity, with 53 percent of white/non-Hispanic participants and 52 percent of minority/Hispanic participants saying that they would support increased funding for charter schools.

The Commonwealth Poll also found that 84 percent of participants felt that parents should be able to play a role in developing school curriculums (with 71 percent saying that the curriculum should be developed by parents, teachers and school boards working together, and 14 percent saying that parents only should be responsible for curriculum development). The remaining participates said that teachers only, or school boards only, should be responsible for developing curriculums. With so many believing that parents should play this key role in their child’s education, the appeal of alternate schooling options that may provide increased choice for families is understandable.

As a key component of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s education platform, the idea of school choice and increasing the number of charter schools has been a hotly debated topic in Virginia. The Governor has also placed a renewed focus on laboratory schools in an effort to promote school choice. Similar to charter schools, laboratory schools offer a tuition-free alternative to public school. With the laboratory school model, K-12 institutions partner with colleges and universities to develop a new curriculum with a focus on various specialty areas. Universities in Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Toronto are already finding success with this model. At the moment, this model is being used with teacher training programs in Virginia; the Governor’s proposal would provide an opportunity to extend the laboratory school model to other professions as well.

When the Virginia state budget went into effect on July 1, $100 million was included for lab school funding (down from the $150 million that the Governor had originally requested). Debates on the idea of school choice, and the charter schools and laboratory schools that can offer increased choice, will likely continue for the foreseeable future. We are also likely to see continued funding requests for such schools included in future state budgets, and debates, as we have currently seen, over the extent of funding.

Education remains a top priority in Virginia and beyond (a previous Commonwealth Poll found that, more than any other public service, Virginians would be willing to see their taxes increased to support education). As these debates continue, exploring options such as charter schools and laboratory schools can provide insight into new ways of providing options for families and, most importantly, ensuring an excellent education for all of our students.

Author: The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School aims to enhance, promote, and celebrate the research of Wilder School faculty and students. The Office also oversees the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, as well as research from the Wilder School’s Centers and Institutes.

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