Family Court and School Choice Decisions

School choice for divorced parents can be a minefield of conflict. Where your children go to school is one of the most important decisions to make as a parent.

This is an issue that often rears its head in family court. What happens when two parents with joint legal decision-making authority don’t agree about where the kids should attend school?

Mom says this. Dad says that.

The first step in any school choice case is to work with the other parent. However, if you are reading this article, chances are you have gone down that road without success.

Before you give up on the possibility of an agreement, consider the value the right attorney can add to the negotiation process.

If you can’t work out an agreement, that means the Court must decide either: (1) where your children will go to school; or (2) which parent will make the final decision on educational issues.

School Choice: Who Decides?

Historically, the Court used a vague “best interest” standard to decide school choice issues. Yet there was little guidance as to what this actually means.

Fortunately, a recent Arizona Court of Appeals Case, Jordan v. Rea, provided specific factors the Court should consider when determining what is in the best interest of the children.

Specifically, the Jordan case said the following factors that should be evaluated in school choices cases:
1. The wishes of the child’s parent or parents
This one might seem odd because the parents obviously don’t agree if they end up in front of the Judge.  But the key is to examine what is motivating the parent’s lack of agreement.
Is one parent disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing? Has that parent done any research? Do they have any evidence to support their position? If not, then an argument can easily be made that their preference as to school choice is not motivated by the best interest of the children.

2. The wishes of the child
This one obviously favors the school chosen by the child, but the child’s wishes are not the final say.

3. The interaction and interrelationship of the child with persons at the school who may significantly affect the child’s best interests
If you are seeking a change of school, this factor will favor you if negative relationships exist. On the other hand, if you are fighting to keep a school, demonstrating positive relationships will favor your case.

4. The child’s adjustment to any present school placement
The factors here are the same as 3. If the child has had bad experiences and sinking grades in a particular school, and it can be proved, then this will influence the outcome. Likewise, if the child is getting stellar grades and has solid friendships at a school that can be proved, this will also be an influence in the case.

5. The child’s educational needs
If you are seeking a change of school, you’ll want to be able to demonstrate that the current school is not meeting the child’s needs. Conversely, if you are fighting to keep a school, be prepared to show grades, after-school involvement, and positive activities to demonstrate your position.

6. The qualifications of the teachers at each school
Compare the schools in question with as many facts as you can establish.

7. The curriculum used and method of teaching at each school
Again, use the facts to back up your position.

8. The child’s performance in each school
If the child is struggling at its current school, this favors a change of schools.

9. Whether the proposed or current school situation complies with state law
Compare the schools in question. If there is data available from an accrediting source, this should help make your case.

10. Whether one school is more suitable given the child’s medical condition or other special needs
Again, compare the schools in question. This may not apply in all instances, naturally, but if it is, it can be a deciding factor.

11. Whether one school would allow the child to maintain ties to a nonresidential parent’s religious beliefs
Compare the schools in question.

12. Whether requiring the child to leave the child’s current school would aggravate the difficulties of the divorce
If the case is high conflict, or the new school creates logistical problems, generally this factor favors the current school.

13. Whether continuing in a particular school would be essential or beneficial to the child’s welfare
Depending on which side you are on, you should be able to show how the current school is good or bad for the child.

Final Thoughts

While the above factors still afford the Court great discretion in selecting a school, they provide an excellent framework for presenting your case.

If school choice is in an issue in your case, going through each of the above bullet points and identifying corresponding evidence/arguments for and/or against your favor is essential to winning the Judge over to your side.

Also, keep in mind that not all of the above factors may be relevant to your case. For example, not school choice case involves a current school.