Funding more microschools in Utah makes sense

Microschools deserve a chance to thrive.

(Ian Lindsey) Students attend class at Acton Academy St. George, a “microschool” in St. George, Utah. Microschools could become easier to open under a newly proposed bill that would allow them to be established nearly anywhere in Utah.

The Utah Legislature just appropriated an additional $40 million for the Utah Fits All (UFA) scholarship program during its 2024 general session.

Launching later this year, the scholarship will mean an uptick in the number of families adopting innovative education models, including microschools.

Microschools are a modern version of the “one-room schoolhouse,” where instruction is customized to fit the needs of each class. Families can pay for microschool tuition with scholarship funds. Low-income households are prioritized in the scholarship program, which will unlock new demand for innovative education models once these families have scholarship assistance. Adding funding to the program will increase its momentum.

For students who need a microschool, this is a good thing. Others continue to express concern about their impact more broadly.

Luckily, Utah policymakers have been prudent in creating a policy framework for the growth of these innovations — aside from just funding. This enables key stakeholders to enjoy the benefits of these models while balancing the needs of others.

Legal clarity is good for microschools and municipalities

The Legislature recently passed SB13, which Sutherland Institute supported. The bill provides cities and towns with definitions of different types of microschools and requires them to register as a business.

Because SB13 was a land use bill, the legislation authorizes municipal leaders to answer the very questions about traffic, parking, noise or safety that have been listed as concerns about microschools during public debates. These are legitimate questions, and the bill aims to help address them. Legal clarity will also provide predictability to microschool leaders who want to start or continue their offerings.

Utah is among the first states to enact a law that both supports innovations like microschools and honors zoning concerns. Some microschool leaders in the state had already run into issues with zoning questions. Rather than reacting to predictable impacts after giving life to innovative education models through new scholarships, Utah took a forward-thinking approach. It found a way to treat microschools fairly and in good faith under the law that was also informed by feedback from counties, cities and fire and health departments. This consensus-building approach to education choice — like when lawmakers boosted teacher pay last year along with creating UFA scholarships — is becoming Utah’s trademark approach to education choice.

Where such an approach is not the norm, confusing microschool regulations and ill-fitted outcomes follow. This has played out in states like Hawaii, New York and Arizona.

Understanding whether an entity is a daycare, private school or something else helps each of these important institutions fill public needs.

Furthermore, microschools already exist in Utah. Neither the UFA scholarship program nor SB13 created microschools. Against the backdrop of an already growing interest in choice, the COVID-19 pandemic changed our culture and expectations surrounding education forever. In that sense, SB13 and UFA scholarships were overdue. But Utah has taken the opportunity to further prepare for shifts in the education landscape.

A case for microschools

Microschools deserve a chance to thrive. They’re relatively new, which means there’s much to learn about their challenges and benefits. According to a report about those receiving microgrants from a particular organization to create these new entrepreneurial options, more than half of recipients are people of color. Homeschoolers — an increasingly diverse demographic — often use microschools for specific subjects or services. In short, allowing microschools to thrive benefits a diverse set of students.

Some suggest that the proliferation of microschools is a way to improve the teaching profession for educators. Free from many administrative burdens and unrealistic public expectations, microschools are a path to keeping qualified teachers in the classroom rather than burning out of the profession.

Microschools have great potential for many in the state. Fortunately, Utah has prepared a policy landscape where creating new microschools makes sense for many parents, students and educators alike. State policymakers are finding ways to balance the momentum of choice with other considerations. Building on that solid foundation, Utah policymakers and voters should have confidence in the steps that they’ve taken to support microschools and look forward to a bright education future for upcoming generations.

Christine Cooke Fairbanks

Christine Cooke Fairbanks is the education policy fellow for Sutherland Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance principled public policy and promote the constitutional values of faith, family and freedom.

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