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School Choice Issues for Separated Parents Can Be Thorny in Northern Virginia

For any parent, decisions involving the education of a child can be some of the most important and influential in that child’s growth and development. Relatedly, a child’s education can become a source of significant tension between separated or divorced parents. 

Families in the Northern Virginia area are fortunate to have a plethora of highly respected, well-accredited and specialized public and private schools from which to choose. However, this often makes the choice even harder and the conflict even more bitter.

A parent with sole legal custody is able to make the decision as to where the child will attend school without consulting the other parent. However, if parents have joint legal custody (as most do), both will need to be involved and must come to a mutual decision. 

If they can’t make a joint decision, then either party may seek legal relief from a court to determine (a) which public school a child should attend (if the parents live in separate school districts), (b) if a child should attend public or private school, and (c) the allocation of private school tuition and fees between parents.

Each parent’s reasoning for preferring one school over another may vary, especially given the number of factors involved in such a weighty decision. Not only must they consider the quality of education, but also the expense, distance from each parent’s home, religious affiliations, and their child’s specific interests, abilities, friendships, and extracurricular activities.

The expense associated with private school is often the primary concern for parents and the court when determining school choice. While the cost of public schooling is “implicit in the [child support] statutory scheme,” and therefore included in the presumptive amount of child support as calculated under the Virginia Code, private school expenses are not factored into the child support tables of Virginia Code § 20-108.2. Smith v. Smith, 18 Va. App. 427 at 435 (1994).

Private school would require the court to deviate from the statutorily prescribed child support amount if a party presents evidence of the cost of private school. Therefore, even if both parents agree that private school is in the best interests of the child, the allocation of cost and each parent’s ability to pay remains at issue.

In private school cases, the court will also weigh the “demonstrated need of the child” and consider the following factors:

  • Availability of public school;
  • The child’s attendance at private school prior to the separation and divorce;
  • The child’s special emotional or physical needs;
  • Religious training; and
  • Family tradition.

Solomond v. Ball, 22 Va. App. 385 at 391 (1996). The facts of your case will determine which of these factors may weigh in your favor. While the court is required to consider all the statutory factors, it has discretion in assigning appropriate weight to each factor based upon the evidence presented. Because of this, school selection cases are heavily fact-dependent and can vary by jurisdiction in the Northern Virginia area.

If you are facing a dispute regarding school choice, be sure to speak with a family law attorney in your area. Livesay & Myers, P.C. has a team of experienced family lawyers across offices in Fairfax, Arlington, Ashburn, Manassas and Fredericksburg-Stafford, representing clients throughout Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.