A recent decision in the Laconia Family Division regarding a parent's disagreement over homeschooling their daughter has been grabbing national attention., including a headline on Fox News. Unfortunately, the news articles, bloggers, and advocates for the mother paint this as a constitutional issue, one of the state interfering with parents' constitutional right to raise their child as they see fit. However, this case is not a constitutional matter or a ruling on the merits or value of homeschooling. It is an example of what happens when two parents cannot agree on what is best for their child.
The facts of the case are as follows: Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch divorced in 1999. The parties were awarded joint-decision making responsibility for their daughter, Amanda, meaning that each parent would have equal say in major life decisions such as education and medical care. Although the parents disagreed about whether Amanda should be home schooled, Amanda was home schooled by her mother. The parties continued to disagree on the issue, and because they could not agree, it went to the court. A Guardian ad Litem was appointed to investigate and make recommendations to the Court. After completing her investigation, the Guardian ad Litem recommended that Amanda's best interests were served by her attendance at public school. After a evidentiary hearing, in which both parties testified and submitted evidence, the court agreed with the Guardian ad Litem, and ordered that Amanda be enrolled in public school. The court, in the lengthy decision, states:
The Court is extremely reluctant to impose on parents a decision about a child's education, which commonly emerges after sincere and thorough discussion between parents who are both committed to the child's growth and development. In the absence of effective communication between the parents whose case reflects a history of opposing opinions on a variety of issues, the Court is guided by the premises that education is by its nature an exploration and examination of new things, and by the premise that a child requires academic, social, cultural, and physical interaction with a variety of experiences, people, concepts and surroundings in order to grow to an adult who can make intelligent decisions about how to achieve a productive and satisfying life.
The parties do not debate the relative academic merits of home schooling and public school: it is clear that the home schooling Ms. Voydatch has provided has more than kept up with the academic requirements of the Meredith public school system. Instead, the debate centers on whether enrollment in public school will provide Amanda with an increased opportunity for group learning, group interaction, social problem solving, and exposure to a variety of points of view. Considering the testimony of both parties and the Guardian ad Litem, and by the standard of a preponderance of the evidence, the Court concludes that it would be in Amanda's best interests to attend public school.
"Parents have the fundamental rights to raise their children to the dictates of their conscience," stated the mother's attorney, John Simmons. And this is true, to a certain extent. As recently discussed on this blog, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that parents have a constitutional right to rear their children as they see fit. The court also affirmed that there is “a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children.” The key word here is parents. The state may not intrude on two fit parents who jointly decide what is best for their child. That is not the case here.
Here, two fit parents did not agree on what was best for their child. Attorney Simmons argues that the court has taken away Voydatch's right, as the girl's primary-custody parent, to make decisions regarding her future. Attorney Simmons argument falls short however, as being the parent assigned primary residential responsibility has no bearing on whether that parent has the right to make unilateral decisions about the child. New Hampshire, as with most states, breaks "custody' into two categories: 1) residential and 2) decision-making. A parent could have the majority of the parenting time, called residential responsibility, but still be required to share decision-making responsibility. In this case, Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch had joint-decision making responsibility. They could not agree on whether Amanda should be home schooled, and in the absence of agreement, the court decided the issue. The father's attorney, Elizabeth Donovan, has it right when she explains: "When two parents with joint decision-making responsibility disagree and they cannot come to any common ground, we submit it to the court. The court takes all the testimony and the court renders a decision. Mrs. Voydatch didn't like the decision."
Parents should keep cases like this in mind when they are litigating issues regarding their children. Parents have two choices. Either the parents decide what is best for their children together as a family, or a judge, who the parents will meet just a few times in their life, will make the decisions for the parents and their children.