The law and parental disputes over boarding schools

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Many parents are reluctant to send their children to boarding schools, because they think that spending more time with their children is good for the children (as well as good for the parent). But what if the parents have split up, and one wants to send the child to boarding school and the other doesn't? That's the subject of an interesting decision from the Arizona Court of Appeals last week, in Baker v. Meyer:

[Deborah] Baker and [Matthew] Meyer were married in 1995 and had three children: J., born in 1998, N., born in 2000, and B., born in 2004….

In February 2014, Meyer filed a motion "regarding [the] children's school enrollment," requesting "that two of the minor children … be permitted to enroll and/or re-enroll in the school of their choice." Specifically, J. would return for his junior year of high school to the Cate School, a boarding school in California, and N. would enroll at Cate for his freshman year. Although Baker first objected to J. returning to Cate, she later agreed because he already had been a Cate student for two years and wished to complete high school there.

Baker, however, continued to object to N. enrolling at Cate, preferring that he attend University High School (UHS) in Tucson so that she could maintain her parenting time with him. Meyer disagreed, pointing out that he and three of his siblings had attended Cate, that attending Cate was "turning into [a family tradition]," and that N. wished to attend there, a preference he later expressed to both the conciliation and trial courts.

In its ruling, the trial court determined the issue to be one of school placement, rather than relocation or modification of parenting time as urged by Baker. The court reviewed specific aspects of UHS and Cate and found "[n]either school is essential and neither is more beneficial as a whole for N[.]" The court then concluded it was in N.'s "best interest to attend Cate," given his expressed wishes and the evidence of "strain on the children when they are back and forth between their parents' homes" that was "affecting the relationship between the children and their parents." There was no question, however, as to the fitness of either parent….

[P]arents have fundamental rights in the custody and control of their children under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment …. See, e.g., Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000) ("the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children … is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court"). Arizona's legislature similarly has observed that "[t]he liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health of their children is a fundamental right." The outlines of that right are made clear under Arizona public policy and statutes, which direct that a child's best interest includes "substantial, frequent, meaningful and continuing parenting time with both parents," and which protect that right absent exceptional circumstances. See A.R.S. § 25-411(J) ("the court shall not restrict a parent's parenting time rights unless it finds that the parenting time would endanger seriously the child's physical, mental, moral or emotional health") ….

Absent evidence to the contrary, as earlier noted, it is generally in a child's best interests to have "substantial, frequent, meaningful and continuing parenting time with both parents." When parenting time is at issue, the court must make "specific findings on the record about all relevant factors and the reasons for which the decision is in the best interests of the child." Failure to make the requisite findings in an order or on the record constitutes an abuse of discretion….

[A]lthough the trial court issued a detailed and comprehensive six-page ruling, it did not directly address, or even mention, the central concern raised by Baker: the substantial effect [of the boarding school attendance] on her parenting time. Instead, the court focused almost exclusively on the question of school placement and the … choice-of-school analysis factors [set forth by an earlier precedent, which involved a non-boarding school]. Its only acknowledgment of the abrogation of Baker's time with N. was a fleeting observance that the child's out-of-state schooling would affect the parents equally. We reject any notion that because the decision affected both parents, and the child's relocation was accepted, indeed initiated and advanced, by Meyer, Baker's rights … could be disregarded.

The appellate court sent the case back to trial court, to consider the case consistently with the appellate court's opinion. That means that boarding school would still presumably be an option, but the trial judge would have to consider the mother's parenting time concerns, and explain how they weigh against whatever benefits the boarding school might provide (relative to other school alternatives).