SB 166: Legalize Microschools
Starting an innovative education model in Utah is overwhelming. For many education entrepreneurs, the biggest challenge is navigating the complex web of zoning and occupancy laws. These regulations dictate where schools can be located and a strict occupancy standard that doesn’t fit their education model. They are often written with traditional institutions in mind, ignoring the unique needs and challenges of new and innovative educational models.
New education entrepreneurs are getting the worst of both zoning and occupancy laws. They are not allowed in residential zones like traditional schools. This was certainly the case for Paul Tanner, the founder of CHOICE Academy in Bountiful. When Paul was starting his school, he found a location in a residential area and attempted to begin operations there. However, city officials told him that he was a private business, not a school, and that the area was not zoned for his “business.” Paul was forced to find a new location and to follow strict zoning and occupancy rules in order to open his doors to students.
These challenges are not unique to Paul and his school. One school was forced by the city to put in an elevator, even though the Americans With Disabilities Act did not require it. Another was forced to register as a daycare. The owner was forced to take diapering classes even though she was teaching teenagers.
Education entrepreneurs fall into a gray space between a school and a traditional business. Senate Bill 166 from Senator Lincoln Fillmore is the right solution. It removes the unfair barriers to open these schools and helps cities know how to say yes to these new and exciting education models.
By legalizing microschools, it means we are permitting them to be in every zone. Currently, residential zones allow schools in neighborhoods, but this has been interpreted by many cities to mean only traditional public schools. Over fifteen years ago, charter schools went through a similar battle to gain access to residential areas too.
The stories told about CHOICE Academy are just one of many examples of these schools receiving the worst of both zoning and occupancy. On top of permitting microschools in every zone, the microschool legislation creates clarity on occupancy standards for the founders of these schools.
Public schools have traditionally allowed many students per square foot of building. With this has come stricter occupancy standards surrounding sprinkling systems, number of bathrooms parking spaces, and a variety of other restrictions on the building. But microschools don’t do this. This is because their model focuses on the individual students’ needs. Having a large student body in a small space would defeat this purpose. This bill will give microschools similar occupancy standards as tutoring centers and other education-based businesses.
Finally, due to the small nature of microschools, this bill will exempt microschools from certain health codes surrounding the gathering of immunization records and similar health department bureaucracy. These small schools simply cannot do all of the paperwork and serve students well.
The traditional public school model doesn’t fit every child. Allowing nontraditional schools to be built and thrive gives families and students options to meet their individual needs. This bill clarifies the existing zoning and occupancy rules, helping cities work with entrepreneurs to build a thriving education network that fits every child.