So you’re about to move your family to Utah – or a new neighborhood in Utah – and you’ve found the home you want within your budget. But what if the school is not within the boundaries of the school your children would attend?
Utah has an open enrollment policy for its public schools, meaning your new address does not dictate or limit where your children can go to school.
For example, students living in Davis County can travel via Interstate 15 to attend historic West High School in Salt Lake City. Children from across the state can take classes at the Virtual Learning Academy established by the Jordan School District in the southern end of Salt Lake County.
Or students can transfer from the school in their neighborhood to another school within their own district – bringing with them their share of education funding per student.
Where does open enrollment come from?
The original law, passed by the Utah Legislature in 1990, was modeled on a law in Minnesota – which, according to the Education Commission of the States, was the first state to require schools and districts to allow and permit student transfers across district lines accept.
It was seen as a “small step” toward greater school choice in Utah, the lawmaker said at the time. Richard Bradford explained it to the plenary. “We’re trying to build flexibility into the system,” the Sandy Republican said, “as well as accountability.”
Other officials said the change would increase competition — which would improve education. Since then, Utah has made several changes to its open enrollment law and continued to expand alternatives to neighborhood schools, from magnet programs to online options to charter schools. As of 2022, there were 140 charter schools in Utah, attracting more than 10% of all public school students.
Utah voters in 2007 rejected the legislature’s plan to introduce vouchers that would allow students to attend private schools using state funding. But after a recent new push, lawmakers passed a $42 million bill to create voucher scholarships starting in fall 2024.
What restrictions apply to open enrollment?
Schools that are considered full are not required to accept students from outside their boundaries.
Skyline High School, which ranks top in U.S. News and World Report’s annual academic rankings, attracts students from outside its Millcreek district. So far, Skyline has not had to turn away students who applied for open enrollment, Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said.
But the district’s Granger High School, located in a newer building in West Valley City, has turned away interested students because it was at capacity, Horsley said. And he expects the same thing to happen with Skyline once the planned new academic wing is built.
“Anecdotally, that’s our biggest marketing tool, which is a brand new building,” Horsley said.
So if you’re concerned about your children attending a particular school, it may still be better to live within the enrollment limits, said Alicia Holdaway of Summit Sotheby’s International Realty. Schools like Corner Canyons High School in Draper and Lone Peak High School in Highland have become so popular, she said, that it’s “almost impossible” to get there through open enrollment.
“I feel like my buyers who are too focused on a particular school will buy a home in that boundary if it’s a priority for them,” Holdaway said. “Because you can’t rely on being let in.”
According to Utah Code, schools are open to enrolling out-of-bounds children if existing attendance is “at or below the open enrollment threshold.” This threshold varies depending on when students apply, but is generally 90% of capacity.
What are the criticisms of open enrollment?
During parliamentary debate in 1990, some lawmakers questioned how open enrollment would change the makeup of students in schools, noting that some parents would not be able to benefit from it because of their inability to organize the transport of their children themselves.
Today, while open enrollment policies are widely viewed as harmless, they can contribute to inequities because parents with more resources are able to expel their children from lower-performing schools, some experts say.
In Utah, where some shrinking schools are facing closure or potential closure, mother and former teacher Rhiannon Longstaff has called for reform of the state’s open enrollment law, arguing that it “disproportionately impacts low-income, immigrant and refugee families, Because parents have better resources, they take their children out of the neighborhood school, which leads to a low school enrollment rate.”
Residents have also questioned the impact of open enrollment — and the driving that comes with it — on air quality in the Salt Lake Valley.
How do you apply for open enrollment at a school?
Many, if not all, school districts have pages on their websites dedicated to how their open enrollment processes work. For example, if you want to apply to a school in the Granite School District, the website has an application form via Google Forms that parents can fill out.
State law establishes early and late enrollment deadlines. There are exceptions, but generally early enrollment for the next school year occurs from November 15th to the first Friday in February. Late registration begins after the third Friday in February. State law also sets deadlines for notifying parents, depending on when they file the application.
Districts can give priority to students who live within their boundaries, as Granite does. However, once foreign students are accepted into the school of their choice, they can usually continue to attend until they graduate without reapplying for approval.