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Even the most amicable custody arrangements can sour over school choice. As more people move about, the issue of where their children will attend school, and what that school offers compared to their current situation, is becoming more significant in family law. This article examines ways an education expert can assist with objective evaluations of school programs.

This was one family court battle where the sides were even: both parents were darn near perfect, and their son had adjusted beautifully to the divorce and joint custody.

But Mom was moving - again - and the judge was having a tough time deciding how the fifty-fifty custody should be modified.

Then Mom's lawyer called in the education experts, and that tipped the case.

"The judge said he had nothing else to break this tie," says Leslie Billman, a small-firm family lawyer in Annapolis, Md. "These were two very good parents who had shared joint legal and physical custody for years with no problems."

The Maryland ex-couple may be unusual in their civility, but their predicament shows how even the most amicable custody arrangements can sour over school choice. As more people move about, the issue of where their kids will attend school - and what that school offers compared to their current situationis becoming more significant in family law. A lot of data on schools is available from public sources, but the quality varies, and the ability to interpret it is in demand, both lawyers and education experts say.

Growing Need for Data

"The importance of school data is growing, as custody litigation becomes more frequent and more fertile," says Mark Guralnick, who wrote the ABA's 1993 Interstate Child Custody Litigation. "We're all searching for what constitutes the best interests of the child, and education is certainly one of the biggest ingredients."

The emotional quality of the relationship between the child and the parent is still the primary factor in awarding initial custody, but school excellence can be useful to support a relocation request.

"I don't think a court would ignore a primary stable relationship just to enroll a child in one of the top 50 schools in the country," says family court Judge Stephen C. Aldrich of Minneapolis. "But because so many more parents are sharing the care of their children, decisions are no longer easy. And there's been a quantum leap in school choice issues."

And that was the issue Billman seized upon to make her case.

"We weren't making any headway on the lifestyle issues," she says. "Both respected one another as parents, so we emphasized the school issue and the child's academic success."

Billman's client was a highpowered corporate executive clearly committed to her son's education.

Dad, a laid-back marina operator, was equally committed. Both parents had continued after their divorce to contribute to a college fund established for the boy when they were still married. Both expected their son to enjoy academic success and a college career.

But the boy was only 9 years old: What school, in Mom's county or Dad's, would serve the best interests of the child?

Billman needed comparison data on schools in Anne Arundel County and those in Montgomery County. While both counties are in Maryland, they are miles apart in resources and achievement. She called in educational expert William Bainbridge of School Match, and his presentation swung the case.

"We played up that both parents expected the son to be going to college, and they wanted a good feeder school, thus laying the groundwork for [Bainbridge] to come in and do a statistical comparison of the two districts. Montgomery County came out way, way ahead," says Billman.

Do It Yourself?

. . .Continue to read rest of article (PDF).

Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.

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