|"Schools Matter When It's Mom v. Dad" By William L. Bainbridge. School and College. June 1993.|
Schools Matter When itís Mom v. Dad
by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
"There's an attorney by the name of Scott Kreamer on the line calling from Olathe, Kansas," Donna announced over the intercom. "He says it's urgent that he speak with you about a child custody matter." The subsequent conversation made so much sense that I wondered why we hadn't thought of it ourselves.
Mr. Kreamer of the Kansas City firm Watson, Ess, Marshall & Engass was representing a parent deeply embroiled in a child custody battle. Mr. Kreamer's client had ordered SchoolMatch reports comparing his school system to one which was being proposed for his child by his ex-wife. Over the objections of her former husband, Kreamer's client, she proposed to move the boy to a rural area. Kreamer and the father reasoned that superior school quality could be used as a reason to keep his child from relocating to a home and school in a rural area of Missouri.
The child was doing well in the Shawnee Mission school system in suburban Kansas City. Shawnee Mission was ranked in our database in the 73rd percentile for spending on instruction, the 70th for buildings and the 81st for teacher salaries. The Missouri school system in question was only ranked in the 9th, 4th and 11th percentiles for those categories. The subsequent testimony persuaded the attorney appointed by the court as "guardian ad litem" for the young man to argue on Kreamer's side. My opinion in this case helped to illustrate the huge difference between public school resources and offerings in this country. Jonathan Kozol's popular book, Savage Inequalities, focuses principally on inferior opportunities for children in urban school systems. Similar arguments can be made for underfunded or poorly managed schools in rural and suburban America. The judge awarded custody to the parent in the school system better suited for this academically talented child - Shawnee Mission.
Over the course of the next few months, attorneys from several states took advantage of SchoolMatch data to bolster their arguments in similar cases. The Wall Street Journal featured the trend in their law column and suddenly we had to gear up to cope with calls from matrimonial and family lawyers from coast to coast. Subsequently, the American Bar Association Journal featured our work in a story entitled, "A Surprise Legal Angle - Firm that Rates Schools Used by Lawyers in Custody Cases". This spring's issue of the American Journal of Family Law included a summary of our work in the area.
While many people understand the significant differences between higher education institutions, perhaps because the tuition takes such a big bite out of many family budgets, people are just learning that some public school systems spend less than $2,000 while others are in the $20,000 per pupil per annum range. Likewise, over 90 percent of the graduates of some public high schools go on to college while other schools find it difficult to point to more than a handful who pursue additional education.
The focus of the news media, politicians and corporate leaders is contributing to an understanding among parents that schools can indeed be quite different. Attorney Kreamer wrote to us:
"In our case, parenting skills, financial resources available and other factors were a wash. The big advantage for the father was in his plan for his son's education. SchoolMatch was able to clearly and persuasively demonstrate to the judge the tremendous discrepancy between the quality of educational opportunity offered by the school districts. I am certain that we won our case because of the testimony..."
In November of 1992, matrimonial attorney Jan L. Warner answered a question of a then-divorcing reader in his Knight-Ridder syndicated column. She asked, "Is there a way I can prove that the schools where I am planning to move are suitable? My lawyer is at a loss." Warner responded, "As you found out, when it comes to child custody disputes, attorneys hire mental health experts and give evidence from medical authorities and others. Today, with a more mobile society and the quality of education emerging as an important factor to be considered in child custody matters, yet another kind of authority has been born: The education expert. You might consider SchoolMatch, which our research indicates, is the only company in the United States that provides this service in child custody disputes."
We quickly learned that most courts would not accept our data unless we presented it into evidence. Attorneys tell us it is important that we present the data ourselves, explain and interpret the information and stand for cross-examination. It was soon recognized that self-reported data from the schools would not be sufficient in child custody cases. Private schools and public school systems tend to issue reports, which are designed to cast them in a favorable light. John J. Cannell, M.D., an Albuquerque (NM) psychiatrist proved the point when he surveyed schools across the country. Cannell reported to Newsweek, NBC's Today Show and others in the national media, "...over 90 percent of the nation's school districts said their students were scoring above the national average." This is obviously mathematically impossible.
Our comparative reports, written opinion and testimony have given attorneys and the children they represent a convincing and important advantage. After all, most children spend more waking hours in school than they do with their parents.
Dr. Bainbridge heads SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH, research firm assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.