As a parent, you want to ensure that your son or daughter receives an education that best supports their development and academic success. That might mean attending a public school, private school, charter school, or online virtual school. In some cases, it might mean using a professionally prepared homeschool curriculum.
The law generally allows parents wide discretion in choosing their child's educational path, but problems can arise when each parent has a different perspective. If you're getting a divorce and your soon-to-be ex-spouse doesn't agree with your choice of school for your child, you may need to consult a Washington state family law attorney to determine the best way to proceed.
Joint Legal Custody Gives Both Parents a Say in a Child's Education
There are two types of custody that are determined as part of a Washington state divorce:
- Physical custody refers to where the child lives and who is responsible for their day-to-day care.
- Legal custody refers to a parent's right to make decisions about a child's care, including decisions related to education, medical treatment, and religious upbringing.
Every family is unique, but it's most common in Washington for parents to have joint legal custody, with one parent having primary physical custody. In this arrangement, both parents have an equal right to make decisions about their child's schooling. How much time the child spends living in each parent's home is not relevant.
Reasons Why Parents May Disagree About School Choice
Disagreements about what school a child should attend can involve a wide range of concerns. Understanding why parents disagree is the first step in finding a solution.
1. Educational Philosophy
Parents may have different opinions about the educational approach they want for their child. Some may prioritize a traditional academic curriculum, while others may prefer alternative or specialized educational methods such as Montessori, Waldorf, or religious-based education.
2. School Quality
Parents may have opposing views of the quality of schools and their academic performance. One parent might prioritize schools with high standardized test scores or rankings, while the other might value a more holistic approach to education or focus on specific programs or extracurricular activities.
3. Needs of the Child
If a child has special needs or requires individualized education, parents may have opposing views on the best type of school to meet those needs. One parent might advocate for a specialized school or program, while the other may prefer mainstream inclusion or a different approach.
4. Proximity and Convenience
Since children spend much of their waking hours at school, choosing a facility that meets the family's overall lifestyle is important. Disagreements can arise when parents have different opinions on the ideal location or commuting distance to a school.
5. Financial Considerations
Tuition costs can be a factor when private school is being considered. Even when parents have a high net worth and substantial assets, there can be a disagreement over whether private school is a worthwhile expense.
How to Resolve the Dispute
Divorce can be tough for children, so it's best to resolve disputes on your own whenever possible. If you have multiple areas of disagreement to work through, mediation or arbitration may be a good option. These processes encourage constructive dialogue and create an unbiased environment that fosters open communication while guiding you toward a resolution.
If the court is forced to intervene, they will make a decision that is in the child's best interests. Some of the factors a Washington state judge may use to decide include:
- The educational reputation of each school being considered, including teacher qualifications, class sizes, curriculum, access to resources, and the school's track record of student success
- How to maintain a consistent and stable environment for the child
- How to best meet the child's educational needs
- How involved each parent was in the child's education prior to divorce
- Your family's religious background (if one of the proposed options is a church-affiliated school)
- If parents have the financial resources to reasonably be expected to pay for the tuition (if private school is one of the options being considered)
Whether your child's school preference will be considered depends on if they are mature enough to have an informed opinion. There is no firm age for when the court will consider your child's input, but the views of teenagers tend to carry more weight than those of elementary school students. Teenagers who express a preference based on factors such as participation in extracurricular activities, school offerings that support their future career goals, and strong mentoring relationships with school staff are likely to have their views carefully considered by the court.