By Andrew Zashin*

For Ohio families, August usually means the end of summer break and the start of the next school year. Some basic level of education is, of course, required by Ohio law, and children between the ages of 6 and 18 are expected to attend school.

And, while home schooling – which is often coupled with online resources – is permitted, the majority of Ohio children will head back to some type of brick-and-mortar school.

How do parents decide where their children will go to school? Obviously, public schools are the tuition-free, publicly funded option and are open and available to all Ohioans. On the other hand, parents may opt for one of the many available – though not free – private, secular options, or for the combination of secular and Judaic education offered by a Jewish day school. Clearly, the choice between public school and private, or between religious and secular, will vary – perhaps quite widely – from family to family.

When children are going to attend public school, the available option, or options, will be given by where the parents live. If two parents live together, clearly there is no question of which public school district is appropriate. But if the parents live apart, there may be two options to choose from.

If the parents aren’t together, the school question can be more complex. Like decisions involving other important aspects of a child’s life, schooling decisions are made by the parent or parents having legal custody. And people often confuse the ideas of physical custody or, where the child is at any given time with legal custody, which is decision-making authority.

Stated more simply

  • If a child is born to unmarried parents, the biological mother has legal custody of that child by default under Ohio law, at least until someone else is awarded rights in lieu of the mother or along with the mother. In that case, the mother decides where the child will go to school.
  • If the children are the subject of a legal battle surrounding custody, the appropriate court may need to be involved in the school registration question.
  • If the parents have litigated their case, whether as a divorce/dissolution/legal separation matter, or as a custody case between unmarried parents in juvenile court, legal custody will ultimately be awarded either solely to one parent, or to them jointly in a setup known as shared parenting. If one parent was awarded sole custody by a court, that parent will decide the school issue.
  • If custody is shared between parents, a shared parenting plan document will spell out which parent is the residential parent for school purposes. Unless a court order states otherwise, this designation usually does not give that parent any greater authority than the other to make schooling decisions but, instead, merely indicates in which parent’s school district the child will be enrolled.

The costs of any education-related tuition will usually be divided between the parents, assuming everyone agrees on the schooling decision. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see a parent forced to pay toward a private school against his or her wishes as courts will generally acknowledge that there is a free option available via public school. And, because of the separation of church and state in the United States, it can also be difficult to get a child enrolled in a religious-based school if a co-parent opposes it.

In today’s society, schools have become accustomed to all different types of parenting setups. If you are unsure about what rights you have as to your children’s schooling, the school itself or, better yet, an attorney, can help you to decipher your court order.

At the time of enrollment, the prospective school likely will ask a few questions about your family situation and will expect to receive a copy of any parenting order before you will be able to get your child enrolled in your school of choice.

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.