Pittsburgh Family Law Services, P.C. Blog

School Choice Disputes: Where Will Your Child Go to School?

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“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” – W.E.B. Dubois

Back to School… but which one?

Deciding where your child will go to school can be a very personal and oftentimes emotional decision, even for two-parent households. You might have a personal history with a specific school, and might even want your children to learn from some of your own former teachers. Perhaps you chose your current neighborhood for the sake of its school system. No matter the reason, many parents have very strong and specific educational preferences for their children. In custody disputes between parents of school-age children, issues of school choice often need to be addressed. If you face a dispute over who gets to pick your children’s school, here are a few points to keep in mind.

If you can, discuss the subject with your co-parent. Describe the outcome you would prefer and why you think it is the right decision, and ask what your co-parent thinks. Listen to the answer, and consider it seriously. Consider whether there is an alternative way to address each parent’s concerns outside of a court battle, and also whether one possible outcome might put an unsustainable burden on the other parent or the children, when compared to the other outcome.

You should also discuss this issue with your local child custody attorney, just as soon as you have reason to know that you and your co-parent might disagree about it. Courts seldom move quickly, and too many parents wait to raise the issue until the summertime, joining the crowd of other last-minute parents who need quick decisions from hard-pressed judges over where their children will go to school in the fall. When that happens, it is more likely that your family court judge will have to make a snap decision about which school your child will attend, at least temporarily, simply because the school year is about to start and there is no time for more thorough consideration. Given an opportunity, Judges prefer helping parents reach agreement, or (if that is not possible) to give both parents a fair and full hearing before making such an important decision. Discussing the matter as early as possible with an experienced family law attorney will help ensure your best opportunity to make your case to the court.

A common misconception is that a Pennsylvania judge will choose to send your child to the “better” school district, or will favor private school over a public education. This is very much a myth; it is seldom that simple. Judges understand that you and your co-parent know your children far better than they ever can. They also know that while some children perform better in a large district with many resources, others might flourish best in a smaller school with fewer students and more individualized attention from teachers. Some private schools offer top-level academic programs which help some children, whereas others may have institutional issues such as falling enrollment or insufficient funding. Your children’s friends might attend one of the two schools. There are other considerations that relate to the parents rather than to the schools, such as their relative economic means, their own respective educational backgrounds, how involved each of them has been up to now in the children’s education, whether one parent is more accommodating or informative toward the other parent in educational matters, and what agreements they have made in the past about their children’s education. The logistics of each possible outcome also matters; perhaps one outcome will allow the current custody arrangement to remain in place, whereas the other outcome might require a disruptive change to your children’s schedule. The focus of the court is always upon the best interest of the child, viewed holistically.

This is why, when a judge makes a decision in a school choice dispute, the order is often framed as awarding “sole legal custody for the purpose of school choice” to the selected parent (or similar phrasing). Judges prefer to maintain parents in equal provisions of authority over their children, limiting one parent’s leverage over another to ‘either/or’ situations such as school choice. Even then, both parents remain equally-entitled (and expected) to participate fully in the children’s education at the school selected by the choosing parent, and each will retain full access to academic records.

If you need the help of an experienced family law attorney for your shared legal custody case in Southside, Lawrenceville or Homestead, call our office to set up a personal consultation with an experienced Pittsburgh area child custody lawyer and to learn how to get the most out of your parental litigation dispute.  Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential.  We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.