School Choice and Joint Custody
Back to school season is in full swing here in Arizona and one of the decisions we face is a multitude of school choice options. When I initially moved here from a smaller town in Oregon, I was ecstatic about all the possibilities. In reality, the choice can be daunting for the discerning parent. These decisions can be particularly difficult if you have joint custody of a minor child and you and the other parent do not agree on where the child should go to school.
In our practice, we find this issue comes up throughout the year but particularly during July, August and September, and even more often when a special needs child is involved with the decision. So what is a parent to do?
- Consult your current paperwork.
Sometimes your custody paperwork has already addressed what to do in the event of a disagreement. One parent may have already been given final decision-making authority on school, religious or medical decisions- even when joint custody has been awarded.
If your current custody paperwork is silent as to who has final decision-making authority, it may still require a certain process to make decisions. Sometimes custody paperwork requires seeking a third party mediator in the event of a disagreement or the paperwork may require that in the event of a disagreement the child stay where they are. The paperwork may even specify that your child attend a certain school.
2. Regardless of what your current paperwork states, this is only the starting point. Custody is almost always modifiable.
Even if the other parent has been given the authority to make the decision, if you strongly disagree, and the child is struggling or not performing well, you may want to consider mediation or a court ordered modification.
Mediation is a non-legal way to find common ground with the other parent and work through a process with a trained professional to determine where the child should go to school. Mediation helps parents get to the heart of the disagreement and work together for the best interest of the child. Perhaps the other parent really does agree that the school you like would be amazing but he or she is worried about transportation, or the cost of books or uniforms. Mediation allows each parent to make their position and concerns known in a non-adversarial setting to see if the challenges can be overcome and agreement can be reached. It is confidential, and usually cheaper than litigation.
When finding common ground is impossible, you may need to seek a court-ordered modification of custody. A modification would require filing court paperwork to sever joint custody, award you decision making authority, or determine that it would be in the best interest of the child to attend the school of your choice. For a court to award a modification, a substantial change in circumstances would need to be shown. For instance, if your child has been recently diagnosed with giftedness or a specific learning disability this may qualify as a substantial change that could require a change in schools.
The Court’s fundamental decision comes down to what it believes is in the “best interest of the child.” While this seems completely subjective, it is important to think about data that can support your assertion that a certain school is in the child’s best interest. The State has recently released new letter grades for schools offering subjective information that can be applied to your particular child.
Where our child or children attend school is an important and difficult decision. If you are having disagreements with the other parent, Tarascio Law Group has both trained mediators and experienced litigators who can help you through the process. Also, you can check out great resources such as http://www.arizonaschoolchoice.com/ for more information on choosing the best school for your child.