School choice consists of state programs designed to allow parents and children equal access to educational choices regardless of income. Programs include scholarship tax credits for donors, tuition vouchers for students, and educational savings accounts as well as state tax deductions for parents. These school choice programs can cause new disputes regarding child custody when one parent wishes to take advantage of tuition vouchers in order to send the child to a private or charter school and the other parent wants the child to remain in public school. This blog explores the impact of school choice on child custody arrangements in Indiana when parents do not agree on what school is best for the child.
When parents share joint legal custody, they must agree on any decision regarding their child’s education. However, absent a court order specifying that the parties shall have joint legal custody, the primary custodian may make decisions concerning the child’s upbringing (I.C. 31-17-2-17). Whether parents have joint legal custody or not, one parent’s desire to change their child’s school can result in conflict and bickering when the other does not wish to do so. Before school choice, the custodial parent simply enrolled the child in the appropriate public school within the district in which they lived, as they had no other choice if they could not afford private school. Even with tuition vouchers, private school is not cheap, and is certainly more of a financial burden on parents than Indiana’s free public schools, with the average voucher covering only about one-half of student expenses (EdChoice). Nonetheless, some parents feel as if public school is not the best option for their child and that private school can meet more of the child’s specific needs. The additional expense of private school is one reason many parties disagree with the other parent’s desire to enroll the child in a private or charter school, as the party will likely be required to pay at least part of the expense.
A parent may disagree with switching the child’s school because of the instability that can result from a change of schools, the location of the new school, when the distance inhibits the parent’s ability to drive the child to and from school or regularly attend school functions and events or removing a child from a school attended by all or most of their friends. The parent wanting to enroll the child in a different school may be thinking more about bullying or poor academic performance at the current school, or the wider range of academic and extracurricular opportunities and the superior student to teacher ratio at the new school. When parents cannot agree on a school selection for the child, the only recourse is to request a hearing on the matter of school choice or ask for a modification of legal custody. The issue of school choice will be decided based on the child’s best interests and which school is a better choice; not on either parents’ finances or the inconvenience that may be caused to a parent due to the schools location. A custody modification might, however, be a little more difficult to win.
A child’s custodial parent has legal custody of the child unless a court order says otherwise (I.C. 31-17-2-17). Joint legal custody is governed by three different statutes, one of which provides that joint custody will only be granted if the court finds that it is in the best interests of the child (I.C. 31-17-2-13). The second code allows for joint legal custody when physical custody is not equally divided (I.C. 31-17-2-14). The last statute lists the matters considered when making an award of joint legal custody (I.C. 31-17-2-15) which includes (1) the fitness and suitability of each of the persons awarded joint custody; (2) whether the persons awarded joint custody are willing and able to communicate and cooperate in advancing the child's welfare; (3) the wishes of the child, with more consideration given to the child's wishes if the child is at least fourteen (14) years of age; (4) whether the child has established a close and beneficial relationship with both of the persons awarded joint custody; (5) whether the persons awarded joint custody: (A) live in close proximity to each other; and (B) plan to continue to do so; and (6) the nature of the physical and emotional environment in the home of each of the persons awarded joint custody. As you can see, the child’s other parent wanting to enroll the child in a different school is not a reason to deny that parent joint legal custody.
It may be best for parents who disagree on what school their child should attend to make another effort to reach an agreement or participate in mediation before taking the issue to the courts. If you decide to request a hearing on the choice of school for your child or ask for a custody modification, the experienced attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C. can help protect both your child’s and your rights.
This blog was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C. It is for general educational purposes. The blog is not intended to be relied upon for any legal matter or issue. The blog is not legal advice. This is an advertisement.