Phillip Suderman · August 17, 2023

PHOENIX—New micro schools popped up across the U.S. as parents responded to school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, which provides parents with savings accounts to spend on a broad range of educational needs, the state has been a hub of micro school innovation. But local zoning codes, written decades ago, make it difficult and expensive for micro school entrepreneurs to find the space they need to teach children. Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) asked the Pinal County Board of Adjustments and Appeals to permit Tia Howard to open her innovative micro school in a rural area near Mesa.

Tia has experience teaching at a micro school in Gilbert and was approved to start a new school affiliated with a nationwide network. She found a rural, residential property near her home that could accommodate the dozen students she envisioned enrolling. But only after signing a contract and making a deposit did Tia find that Pinal County’s zoning code might hinder micro school entrepreneurs. Tia had to withdraw from the contract, losing her $5,000 deposit.

“From experience I know how hard it is to start a micro school but Pinal County is making it practically impossible,” said Tia. “Arizona school choice programs make it possible for families to direct their children’s education. Local laws should not needlessly squash innovation.”

Tia wants to run her small school in a rural area, but it is not clear if the zoning code permits that. While a “school” would be permitted on the property she wanted to buy, she was told by county planners that “school” does not include a private school, including a micro school. This is not only inconsistent with other parts of the code, but it would be unconstitutional to treat schools differently based only on the source of their funding.

The situation is further complicated by the planners’ alternative recommendation, which would not work for Tia. She was told she could have a home school that operates as a home business. But the limits placed on home businesses would require Tia to use the property as her primary residence and would limit her to only two students.

Finally, Pinal County’s zoning code requires that all private schools have at least five acres. However, a state law passed in 2018 prohibits counties from requiring private schools to have more than one acre of property.

“Micro schools are a reinvention of the one-room schoolhouse to better serve students and families,” said IJ Arizona Office Managing Attorney Paul Avelar. “But zoning and other land-use laws, most of which never anticipated micro schools, are getting in the way of educational entrepreneurs and innovation for no good reason and are limiting parents’ ability to educate their children in the best setting for them.”

The bureaucratic confusion faced by Tia is sadly common for micro school entrepreneurs. For example, in Nevada micro schools must be in residential areas, not commercial. Broward County, Florida, requires a special license above and beyond state requirements. And in Georgia, local enforcers tried to shut down a school operating out of a church that met the local building code.

The Institute for Justice is uniquely prepared to help micro school entrepreneurs, having defended school choice programs and property rights since its founding more than 30 years ago. IJ successfully defended Arizona’s innovative Empowerment Scholarship Account in 2014 and has defended programs in other states that followed the Arizona model. IJ is also currently challenging Sierra Vista, Arizona’s attempt to enforce its zoning code to evict seniors living in a mobile home community.