School Choice Disputes in Arizona
Written by: Tracy Augustin
Recently, our office has seen an onslaught of school choice determination cases. And, as the Valley continues to expand and grow, the issue is certain to continue to be a hot button in Family Court cases. Now, I’m probably going to age myself a bit here, but here goes nothing…
When I was growing up, there was only one choice that my parents needed to make when sending my sister and me to school:
Will they go to public school or private school?
That’s it. The rest of the choices were already determined for my parents. My sister and I simply went to public school, and that was determined by what school district we lived in.
Simple as pie, right?
Well, today, the issue of school choice is much more complicated.
Now, aside from private vs. public school debate/choice, there is a choice over what method of learning will be taught. Will the school be traditional or montessori? Will the school be a public school or charter school (I’m still not sure what the difference is)? Will the school have a focus, such as the arts, math and science, a foreign language or equestrian (I kid you not…there is an equestrian focused school in my neighborhood)?
Aside from those decisions, the matter of school choice can be exponentially harder for those parents raising children in two different homes that may not be near each other. Even harder are the cases where only one parent wants the child/ren to go to private school (meaning high-priced tuition). And, while there may not be a right or wrong answer per se, if there is a disagreement between parents sharing joint custody (legal decision-making) on this issue, and if asked, the Court will get involved. In some cases, the court will make the choice for you.
Hopefully, you won’t find yourself in this situation as it is ALWAYS better when parents can work together to find a viable solution to the issue of choosing a school. But, in the event you do find yourself in this conundrum, here are some things to consider, which in some cases may offer workable solutions:
Issue 1: Location, location, location!
Do you and your ex live on opposite sides of the Valley, but share a relatively equal parenting time schedule? If so, how will the two of you make a decisions about where your child will go to school? Obviously, if a school is chosen close to mom, dad might miss out on his parenting time simply due to logistics, as it may not be possible to transport the child to and from school everyday, every other week.
This issue is a toughy because an order that the child go to school near one parent will certainly affect the parenting time of the other parent. However, if the Court gets this issue to decide, this might be exactly what the Court has to do – reduce the parenting time of one parent. Some other facts the Court may consider are (a) which parent was the moving parent and (b) what the motivations for moving were.
If you find yourself in this position, some possible solutions to this issue may include revamping the current parenting time schedule, allowing one parent more time on weekends or non-school days and one parent more time on school days. Another alternative is picking a school that is approximately equidistant between the parents’ residences. Another, more drastic solution, may include one parent moving closer to the other parent. (But, if both parents own their homes, that may be a bit more difficult or even impossible.)
Issue 2: $ Money, money, money $
What happens when parents have vastly different incomes and one parent wants to send the kids to a private school? What if there is not a disparity in income, could the Court order one parent to pay for school tuition costs if they disagreed with sending their child to private school?
Well, like most good legal questions, the answer is: it depends!
Do the parents have an agreement that states who will pay for tuition? If there is an agreement between the parents as to where their children will attend, then the answer is easy: YES, you can be court-ordered to pay for tuition expenses through child support. As you may or may not know, the inclusion of tuition costs will have an effect on a child support calculation. But, the inclusion of school tuition on the child support worksheet is discretionary, not mandatory.
The answer becomes much more convoluted and much less clear if there is not an agreement between the parties to send the children to private school. However, the answer could still be “YES,” a parent could be forced to pay against their will. The fundamental question will revert back to the “best interests of the child” standard.
There is one exception that the Court has carved out and that exception has to do with affordability. Sometimes it’s simply not possible for one parent to pay their share of the bill. If you can prove that, despite the fact that it might be in your child’s best interest to attend private school, the Court may not order you to pay the expense.
Issue 3: Pre-School Education vs. Child Care
Another issue that has come up is “how early is too early” for the Courts to make a school choice determination. I’m sure this issue also varies by judge, but I will have you know that it’s never too soon to start thinking about your child’s education, especially if you recognize there is a potential for disagreement in the future. Parents may disagree about whether to send their child to pre-school in lieu of child care or vice-versa. I currently have a case that deals with this very issue. It’s still too soon to tell which way the chips will fall, but it may be helpful for you to know that the Court considers the issue a topic worth hearing.
Issue 4: School Superiority
Another type of school choice case can involve playing the “School Rankings Game.” This game involves each parent looking up the rankings and grade letters associated with their chosen school and presenting this information as persuasive evidence to the Court as to why their child should attend their proposed school versus some other school. Typically, this type of case is secondary to some other underlying issue, such as location. In my experience, unless there is something extremely wrong with the school the child is currently going to (or if it’s just not logistically possible) the Court has found the status quo to be in the child’s best interest, even when school rankings favored otherwise. I’m not saying that will always be the case, but that’s been my experience.
School Choice Wrap Up
So, there you have it. As you can see, there are many areas up for contention when it comes to the issue of school choice. And, really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve seen cases in which parties started comparing the special programs offered at one school versus the other. Other cases have had to do with the before-school care or after-school care availability and costs. There are plenty of areas to litigate, but as always, I highly recommend working out the issue with the other parent.
After all, the end game is what’s in the best interest of your child.