A ‘microschool’ could be your new neighbor with this Utah bill. What are they, and why are lawmakers pushing to expand them?

A proposed bill would advance school choice options in Utah.

(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

A tiny school called a “microschool” could soon become your next-door neighbor under a newly proposed bill that would allow them to be established nearly anywhere in Utah.

Microschools are a hybrid of homeschooling and private schooling that operate on a small scale. They’ve been gaining momentum in Utah and other conservative-led states where there is a strong push to expand school choice options.

The new bill, SB13, would advance that expansion in Utah by granting microschools the same zoning privileges as charter and private schools. That means they could open in residential neighborhoods, converted downtown storefronts, shopping malls and even the wilderness, because they would be considered a “permitted use” across all zoning districts within a county.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said it offers cities clear guidance for accommodating microschools. Current zoning laws are silent on the matter, causing a “bureaucratic nightmare,” as lawmakers have described, for those wanting to establish one.

“Right now, [microschools] can either be regulated as schools or day care centers, but they’re not either one of those,” Fillmore said during a Feb. 6 Senate floor hearing. “As this movement is growing across the state and across the country, it’s important to provide cities some guidance.”

‘That is not what our community is made for’

(Ian Lindsey) The outside of Acton Academy St. George, a microschool in St. George, Utah. The school was established inside a house, one of its co-founders said.

The bill differentiates between two types of microschools: “home-based”microschools and “micro-education” entities. Home-based microschools, or schools operating from an individual’s house, could serve no more than 16 students, according to the bill.

Micro-education entities could serve up to 100 students per facility, and cities would maintain authority to regulate their parking, noise levels and safety.

Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, opposed the bill during Senate discussions on Feb. 7.

“This bill allows 16 kids to be in a house next to you — a house that might have 16 kids coming and going twice a day,” said Riebe, the Senate minority whip. “That is not what our community is made for. Our community is made for houses. My house is the biggest investment I have. That’s where I go for peace. That’s where I go for refuge.”

Unlike traditional schools, which cannot be located next to stores selling alcohol or tobacco, the bill doesn’t impose those restrictions on microschools, which caused concern among some lawmakers.

“It’s a little disingenuous to me,” Riebe said. “If we believe that it’s important to regulate what’s happening with our kids in our schools, and make sure that they are not being exposed to these things, these parameters should go across the board with every kid in every institution.”

The bill also prohibits local school boards from requiring a microschool to “provide teaching credentials, submit to inspection and conduct testing.”

Riebe argued that instead of loosening regulations for microschools, the state should tighten them. She cited the child abuse case involving Utah parenting influencer Ruby Franke and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, who were arrested in August after two of Franke’s children, who were not enrolled in a traditional school, were found malnourished at Hildebrant’s Ivins home.

Franke had been known as a parenting advice video-blogger after she launched a YouTube channel in 2015 called “8 Passengers.” The channel garnered more than 2 million subscribers at its height, and was named for Franke, her husband and their six children. Both Franke and Hildebrant pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse in December.

“This bill takes away all requirements for anyone to check them, to watch for them, to make sure that anything that’s supposed to happen, is happening. That’s my concern,” Riebe said.

Microschool landscape in Utah

Though the exact number of microschools operating in Utah is unknown, Jon England, an education policy analyst at conservative think tank Libertas Institute, estimates there are around 30.

“‘Microschools’ has kind of become this catch-all term for a lot of models that look different than a traditional public school,” England said.

He noted that due to this lack of definition in current zoning laws, establishing them can be costly, with some cities mandating compliance with building regulations intended for significantly larger, traditional schools.

Ian Lindsey, co-founder of Acton Academy St. George, said it was difficult to find a location for his microschool. After securing a house in St. George, he invested roughly $500,000 of his own money to bring it up to code.

“No one really knew where we fit,” Lindsey said. “Even once we got approved for this property, it took 10.5 months, approximately, to get our permits issued. So, at every turn, it was something else.”

Acton Academy officially opened early last year and serves about 40 students ages 3-12, Lindsey said.

Lindsey said he started the school because he wanted something different for his children.

“For me, public education, although there’s many, many wonderful people in public education doing important work. … It was a system that I felt like I was successful in life despite it,” Lindsey said. " I don’t think it’s the teachers’ fault, in most cases. I think it’s a system. It’s a one-size-fits-all education model, and I didn’t want that for my kids.”

Microschools are funded through tuition payments, much like private schools. But starting this fall, students enrolled in microschools will be eligible for the Utah Fits All Scholarship, the state’s largest-ever school voucher program. If selected, they’ll be able to use $8,000 for tuition and other educational expenses.

Lindsey said that while the bill would make it easier for individuals like himself to start a microschool, he’s a bit wary of it.

“I’m skeptical of government intervention in general, to be perfectly frank,” Lindsey said.

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