Utah open enrollment: What it means for your kids

Utah’s “open enrollment” policy was an early step in the state’s drive to increase school choice.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) So far, Skyline High School in Millcreek hasn’t had to turn away students who live outside its boundaries but want to attend, said Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley. But that may change as it opens new facilities.

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So you’re about to move to Utah — or into a new neighborhood in Utah — with your family and found a home you want, within your budget. But what if it’s not within the boundaries of the school you were hoping your kids would attend?

Utah has an open enrollment policy for its public schools, which means your new address won’t dictate or limit where your children can go to school.

For example, students who live in Davis County can travel down Interstate 15 to attend Salt Lake City’s historic West High School. Kids from around the state can take classes at the Virtual Learning Academy created by the Jordan School District, at the south end of Salt Lake County.

Or students can shift from their neighborhood school to a different one within their own district — bringing their share of per-student education funding with them.

Where did open enrollment come from?

The initial law passed by the 1990 Utah Legislature was patterned after one in Minnesota — which was the first state to require schools and districts to allow and accept student transfers across district boundaries, according to the Education Commission of the States.

It was considered a “small step” toward greater school choice in Utah, then-Rep. Richard Bradford explained on the House floor. “We’re trying to build flexibility into the system,” the Sandy Republican said, “as well as accountability.”

Other representatives said the change would increase competition — which would improve education. In the years since then, Utah has made various amendments to the open enrollment law and continued to expand alternatives to neighborhood schools, from magnet programs to online options to charter schools. By 2022, there were 140 charter schools in Utah, drawing more than 10% of all public-school students.

Utah voters in 2007 rejected lawmakers’ plan to create vouchers — which allow students to use state funding to attend private schools. But after a recent new push, lawmakers passed a $42 million bill to create voucher scholarships starting in fall 2024.

What are the limits on open enrollment?

Schools that are considered full don’t have to accept students from outside their boundaries.

Skyline High School, which places high in annual academic rankings from U.S. News and World Report, draws students from outside its Millcreek neighborhood. So far, Skyline hasn’t had to turn down students who’ve applied for an open enrollment permit, said Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley.

But the district’s Granger High School, located in a newer building in West Valley City, has turned away interested students, due to being at maximum capacity, said Horsley. And he anticipates the same thing happening to Skyline, once its planned new academic wing is built.

“Anecdotally, that is our biggest marketing tool, which is a brand new building,” Horsley said.

That’s why, if you are set on your children attending a specific school, it may still be better to live within its enrollment boundaries, said Alicia Holdaway of Summit Sotheby’s International Realty. Schools such as Corner Canyons High School in Draper and Lone Peak High School in Highland have become so popular, she said, it’s “near impossible” to get into them via an open enrollment permit.

“I feel like my buyers that are hyper-focused on a particular school, they’re going to buy a house in that boundary if it’s a priority to them,” Holdaway said. “Because you can’t bank on getting permitted in.”

According to Utah Code, schools are open for out-of-boundary kids to enroll if existing attendance “is at or below the open enrollment threshold.” That threshold varies depending on when students apply, but described generally, it’s set at 90% capacity.

What are the criticisms of open enrollment?

During the 1990 Legislative debate, some lawmakers questioned how open enrollment would change the mix of students in schools, and noted that some parents would be unable to take advantage of it because they wouldn’t be able to provide transportation on their own for their kids.

Today, although open enrollment policies are generally seen as benign, they can contribute to inequities as parents with more resources are able to move their kids out of lower-performing schools, some experts say.

In Utah, where some shrinking schools are facing closure or potential closure, parent and former teacher Rhiannon Longstaff has called for reform of the state’s open enrollment law, arguing it “disproportionately impacts low-income families, immigrants and refugees, because parents with higher means are pulling their children out of the neighborhood school, leading to low enrollment.”

Residents have also questioned the impact of open enrollment — and the driving it requires — on the Salt Lake Valley’s air quality.

How do you apply for open enrollment in a school?

Many, if not all, school districts will have pages on their websites dedicated to how their open enrollment processes work. For example, if you wanted to apply to a school in Granite School District, its website lists an application form through Google Forms that parents can fill out.

State law sets deadlines for early and late enrollment periods. There are exceptions, but generally, early enrollment for the next school year runs from Nov. 15 to the first Friday in February. Late enrollment starts after the third Friday in February. State law also sets deadlines for notifying parents, depending on when they apply.

Districts can give priority to students who live within their boundaries, as Granite does. But once out-of-boundary students are accepted at their school of choice, they can generally continue to attend without reapplying for a permit until they graduate.