Rhiannon Longstaff: Utah’s open enrollment policy is hard on schools in low-income neighborhoods

Schools lose funds and parental support when higher-income families abandon them.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Busses depart Millcreek Elementary School Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. Millcreek and two other elementary schools were recommended to close under a proposal by the Granite School District.

I am writing in response to the planned closure of three elementary schools in Granite School District. I believe our state’s open enrollment policy needs to change because this law disproportionately impacts low-income families, immigrants and refugees.

I am a former teacher, a PTA volunteer and my kids attend one of the schools potentially being closed due to low enrollment. I do not blame Granite School District for these school closures because they are doing exactly what our laws and policies require.

Millcreek and Twin Peaks, both which are slated to close, are two schools situated in low-Income communities. It is a blow for these communities to lose their local school. I fear that the ramifications of this closure will result in what has happened so often in our country’s history; students from low-income and ethnically diverse areas will be bussed for longer distances to attend school. I want to explain Utah’s open enrollment policy and how those with the least are further disadvantaged.

In Utah we have one of the nation’s most flexible open enrollment policies for public schools, which means, if you want your child to attend a public school, and there is room, they can get in. The limitations are set by grade level availability and students with individual education plans.

This is a law that 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. Parents who do not speak English as their first language, are immigrants or refugees or parents who have complicated working schedules cannot drive their children to another school are being most impacted by school closure.

It’s easy to blame rising housing costs on low enrollment, but this is only part of the problem. The open enrollment policy exacerbates the housing costs issue. There are 344 students K-5 that live within the Millcreek Elementary boundary and only 48% of those students attend that school. The other 52% go to either another traditional public school, charter school, private school or home-school.

I can understand that there exist special circumstances where children need to choose another option, but do half of all students in the boundary have those special circumstances? As a parent I understand that we all want what is best for our children, but what I have recently witnessed, with discussions of boundary changes and closing schools, sometimes we do not see how getting what we think is best for our child comes at a much greater cost for another.

Studies show that students are better critical thinkers when they are in more diverse environments. We are doing a disservice to our children if we place them in schools where the majority of students look like them. What could be gained by your child if they were learning in a more diverse environment?

When parents take their children out of their local school, the school also loses parent volunteers and their fundraising potential. These schools slated to close may not have fundraisers and if they do, they get little money to fund programs, field trips or to build playgrounds. Twin Peaks had two parents on its PTA last year. Parent volunteers can help alleviate some of the hardships of running a school.

If your child were to attend a school in these low-income areas, your presence and your contribution to make it better means a lot more — not just for your kids, but all of those children.

This holiday season, with both food and toy drives happening to benefit low-income areas, perhaps consider how your background and availability could benefit the schools not just at Christmas time but all year round. What could your time to volunteer in the classroom, help fundraise, or go on field trips do for these communities?

My suggestion for a law change is not to get rid of the open enrollment policy but to provide a framework where students in traditional public schools can be evenly distributed. We are doing a disservice to children and low-income families. Let’s change this, Utah!

Rhiannon Longstaff

Rhiannon Longstaff has a master’s degree in education from the University of Utah, is a former teacher and is an avid school volunteer.