Divorced or separated parents often have difficulty agreeing on issues related to their children. School choice is an important issue in custody cases that is often in dispute. Disagreement as to school choice can involve public school versus public school, public school versus private school, public school versus parochial school, or private school versus parochial school. It is imperative that parents know and understand the law in Pennsylvania with respect to custody and school-related litigation. Ideally, parents should make every effort to work together to co-parent in the best interest of their children and reach an agreement as to which school their children will attend. Doing so will minimize stress and conflict for all involved, most importantly children. Not surprisingly, such compromise can be very challenging for divorced or separated parents.
The Pennsylvania child custody statute defines physical custody as “[t]he actual physical possession and control of a child” and legal custody as “[t]he right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including, but not limited to, medical, religious and educational decisions.” See 23 Pa.C.S. Section 5322(a).
The Pennsylvania Code addresses admission to public schools and provides “[w]hen the parents reside in different school districts due to separation, divorce or other reason, the child may attend school in the district of residence of the parent with whom the child lives for a majority of the time, unless a court order or court approved custody agreement specifies otherwise. If the parents have joint custody and time is evenly divided, the parents may choose which of the two school districts the child will enroll for the school year.” See 22 Pa. Code Section 11.11(a)(1).
Pennsylvania courts generally award custody on a 50/50 basis. As such, the typical custodial arrangement is shared physical custody and shared legal custody. Parents who exercise shared legal custody of their children have the right to make education-related decisions on their behalf. Education-related decisions include school choice, or where the children will attend school. Since most parents exercise shared legal custody of their children, they must agree on school choice.
Pennsylvania law permits a school-age child to attend the public school of the district in which the child resides. If one parent exercises primary physical custody then the children may attend the school district in which the primary custodial parent resides. If both parents exercise shared physical custody then the children may attend the school district in which either custodial parent resides. Conflict often arises as the law does not grant exclusive decision-making authority to either parent in this situation.
When there is a dispute among parents regarding school choice, and they are unable to reach an agreement, one of the parents must seek court intervention. The court will make a determination as to where the children should attend school by considering the evidence presented by both parents in light of the overall goal of serving the best interest of the children. Relevant evidence includes, but is not limited to, school ranking (curriculum, standardized test scores, and crime rates), school location (distance between the school and each parents’ residence), child’s educational needs and academic performance (report cards and progress reports), child’s participation in sports and other extra-curricular activities, child’s preference (depending on the age and maturity of the child), and school tuition (if applicable).
Divorced or separated parents who know that there is a dispute as to school choice and that court intervention is likely necessary, should consult with an attorney who specializes in custody litigation. It is critical to avoid delay when dealing with the issue of school choice in custody cases.
Going back to school can be an exciting and overwhelming experience for children and parents alike. For divorced or separated parents, this time can be fraught with challenges which cause stress and conflict for all involved, most importantly children. We advise our family law clients that it is important to make a conscientious effort to put their differences aside and co-parent in the best interest of their children. Successful co-parenting, including communication between parents, is critical in helping children succeed in school, and contributes to their overall sense of well-being and security – a win-win for everyone.
Parents who exercise shared legal custody of their children must agree on school selection and extra-curricular activities prior to enrollment. Before the first day of school, parents should develop and implement a unified parenting plan to provide their children with stability, consistency, and routine. The unified parenting plan should include the following:
Working together to co-parent and demonstrate a united front will require patience, tolerance, compromise, and coordination, but, in the long run, the joint effort will greatly reduce back to school custody issues which can be costly, frustrating, and painful for children and parents.