How is the school that a child will be attending decided if the parents are separated and live in two different school zones?
Real-world, gritty answer that you may not like, but nevertheless already knew:
whichever parent persuades the judge to side with him/her.
Essentially useless answer (I’ll explain below):
“The decision must serve the best interest of the child.”
Well, before we get to the bottom line, let’s explore the “whichever parent persuades the judge to side with him/her” topic. Now the real reason Mom and Dad want the kids to attend high school in his/her neighborhood is so that Mom/Dad will be awarded primary physical custody of the children (yes, it’s that obvious; you’re not fooling anybody by trying to frame the issue as “I just want the best education for ______”)
Now let’s discuss the arguments. We’ll start by outlining a hypothetical scenario of a typical situation.
Mom and Dad live, say, 5–10 miles apart. Each parent’s neighborhood hosts a separate high school, and both Mom and Dad want the child(ren) to attend high school in Mom’s/Dad’s neighborhood. We’ll call the two different high schools “Central High” and “Valley High” respectively.
“Central High,” argues one parent, has higher state rankings than “Valley High”. Hmm, ‘sounds like a pretty good argument. After all, if one school ranks higher than the other, shouldn’t the children attend “the best school”? Not necessarily.
What if the difference in rankings is that Central High is ranked 10th and Valley High is ranked 11th? Hardly a compelling difference, and remember, rankings are subjective. And what if next year Central High ranks 12th? and Valley High holds steady at 11th? Do we check the kids out of one school and send them to another?
But what if Central High is 10th and Valley High is 34th? Come on, now, that’s a big gap. And assuming the rankings are fairly reliable, doesn’t that mean that the kids must clearly go to Central High? No. For example, Central High may rank higher overall, but what if Valley High has the best industrial arts program and at least one of your kids has a talent for welding and mechanics? What if your child gets his glasses broken and his lunch money stolen there? And what about splitting the kids up between two schools? If their’s toxic sibling rivalry, maybe Adam attends Central High and Charles attends Valley High.
“OK, OK,” you say, “I see the point, but although there’s no love lost between my ex and me, we want all of our kids to attend one school and, frankly, our kids are not so unique as to need ‘the best’ particular program of a particular school.”
If your main concern is having the kids all attend the same school and your kids aren’t among the academic (or tradesman) elite, then why would they need to go to a “great” school? If they’re average (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then an average school will do just fine.
“But,” you say, “it certainly wouldn’t hurt to put the kids in the best school possible.” True, but it is just as true that “it likely won’t hurt to put the kids in an average school either.” Sorry, but the “best school” argument is so subjective and so influenced and affected by so many competing interests and risks and arguments as to be meaningless. Then add in the self-serving aspect of each parent claiming that the high school in my neighborhood (where I want the kids to live with me) is “the best” school.
It’s worth debating what is the best school and how “best school” is defined, but the judge’s choice of school rarely rests on “best school” analysis.
If the parents are affluent and provide each of their children with cars when they obtain driver licenses, then where the parents live may not be such a major concern in determining where the children attend high school.
If just one of the parents has a clear history of being engaged and involved in the children’s education, while the other parent has been indifferent, that may decide the issue of where the children attend school.
If the parents are, say, devout Catholics, and Valley High is actually short for “Our Lady of the Valley High School,” while Central High is a public school, the court may order that the kids go to Valley High for that reason.
If religion is a sore spot between the parents or between at least one parent and the children, Central High may win the day for that reason.
Can the court inquire with the children as where they want to attend school? Yes. Will the court inquire with the children as where they want to attend school? Probably not. Courts generally believe that children are a) too immature for their desires and opinions to carry much weight (which, in fairness, is a reasonable position); and b) so easily manipulated by one or both parents as to make it impossible to know whether their expressed desires and opinions are genuine.
But the factors that weigh most heavily (perhaps exclusively) in the decision will probably be these:
- If the court already awarded primary physical custody of the children, and the oldest child has not yet started high school, the child(ren) will likely attend school where the reside the most.
- If the court does not deem one parent so much better than the other as to settle the question of where the kids reside, and if some or all of the kids were attending Central High before the parents separated and divorced, and if the kids are at least C students and well-adjusted there and have no legitimate complaints about Central High, then the court will likely order that the status quo be maintained.
If the judge literally can see no compelling difference between Central and Valley High, he might just settle—and fairly, reasonably settle—the question with the flip of a coin.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277