With the fall school days approaching, parents need to know their rights and obligations regarding their children’s schooling.
The Pennsylvania Public School Code mandates that all children must either attend school or pursue a course of home study. While most Pennsylvania children begin school well before they are eight years old, Pennsylvania law does not actually compel any education until a child is eight years old.
Once parents elect to enroll their child in school or to commence a course of home study, the child is required to attend continuously until he or she graduates or turns 17 years of age. Children aged 14 through 16 can drop out of school only upon meeting fairly complex requirements, including administrative approval, work, or other education attendance, and, in limited cases, farm work. And children who have not graduated from high school are entitled to attend, if they so choose, until they are 21 years old.
A mixture of state and local revenues provides the funding for Pennsylvania school districts. Given the differences in tax revenue from one locality to another, school districts range from the very wealthy to the very poor. The differences in the quality of education can sometimes motivate parents to relocate or to relocate their children in order to have the advantage of a better school district.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recognized that children reside in the school district where their custodial parent actually lives. In the test case that came before the court, a married mother moved from one county to another in order to live near the private school where her older child was enrolled. The mother’s younger child had special needs; the mother sought special education services from the local school district. Because the couple remained married and the father stayed in their marital home, and because the mother’s relocation was focused entirely on being closer to the elder child’s private school, the local school district decided that the younger child was not a true resident of its school district.
Although the mother changed her voter registration and address to the apartment address, she admitted that she intended to live in the apartment for only seven years and planned to return to the marital home when the elder child graduated from the private school. She also acknowledged that she returned, with both children, to the marital home every other weekend and that the children’s father continued to live in the marital home.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that if a child relocates from the marital home with one parent to reside in an apartment with another parent, the child is entitled to attend school in the district where the “custodial parent maintains a residence,” which need not be the primary residence or a permanent home. The continued presence of the other parent in the marital home does not establish the marital home as the child’s residence, according to the court.
The court presumed that adults and children can have more than one residence if they regularly stay in more than one home. It is important to note that the court placed great weight on the fact that the mother and children did not “merely visit” the apartment. Rather, they stayed there during the day and they slept there at night. They received mail and telephone calls at the apartment, and the children’s clothing, books, and supplies were kept there as well.
In a similar but different case, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court refused to recognize a mother’s apartment as the children’s residence. In that case, the children’s father died, and the mother continued to live in the family apartment for several years. After remarrying, the mother moved with the children to a new home in an adjacent school district, and the children changed schools for a few years.
Preferring the original school district, the mother returned to the family apartment and re‑enrolled the children in their original school district. She received mail at the apartment and changed her voter registration and driver’s license to the apartment address, but she stayed there an average of only two nights per week. The other nights, she and the children stayed in their new home and on school days commuted back to the original school district.
Under those circumstances, the court found that the apartment was not really the residence of mother. The court noted that children are entitled to attend school where their parents reside and that the focus in a dispute about school attendance entitlement should be on the parent’s actual presence in the claimed residence. Because the mother did not sleep in the former family apartment most nights, the court found that she was “school shopping,” and it agreed that the original school district where the apartment was located was not obliged to readmit the children to attend there.
Finally, in a case that focused on a school district’s obligation to provide children with bus transportation to a private school, the commonwealth court found that where children were in equally split custody, living in a “50/50 custodial arrangement,” the children’s father was a “resident” of his school district, entitled to have the children bused by his district to their private school. During their custodial periods in their mother’s home, her school district was obliged to provide the busing.
When parents share custody equally, it appears that they have a school choice and can pick their child’s school district. Otherwise, children reside only in the school district where their custodial parent actually resides.