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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Supreme Court upholds ruling ordering girl to attend public school

CONCORD – The state Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a judge’s decision to order a girl to attend public school as her father requested, rather than be home-schooled as her mother wanted.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Lynn began by expressing the court’s reluctance to get involved in such decisions, but said that when a divorced couple can’t sort out their differences, the courts are obliged to step into the fray.

The court upheld the ruling of Laconia Family Court Marital Master Michael Garner in the case of Brenda and Martin Kurowski. The ruling compelled their daughter to attend her local public elementary school last year, finding the ruling “represents a sustainable exercise of the trial court’s discretion to determine the educational placement that is in daughter’s best interests.”

“Courts have neither the mandate nor the expertise” to decide whether a child would be better off in a public, private or home school, Lynn wrote, adding, “When divorced parents are unable to agree on such educational choices for their minor children, however, courts are called upon to make these difficult and sensitive decisions, often in a highly contentious atmosphere – which may be all the more so if the parents’ divergent views are affected by their individual religious beliefs.”

“While this case has religious overtones, it is not about religion. While it involves home schooling, it is not about the merits of home versus public schooling. This case is only about resolving a dispute between two parents, with equal constitutional parenting rights and joint decision-making responsibility, who have been unable to agree how to best educate daughter,” Lynn wrote.

The couple divorced in 1999, when their daughter was just a baby, and the girl has always lived mainly with her mother, though she sees her father weekly, the ruling states. After kindergarten, Brenda Kurowski decided to home-school the girl, based mainly on her religious practices and beliefs.

Martin Kurowski objected, arguing that the girl was spending time exclusively with her church group and needed a more diverse social life. He did not at first seek an order to have the girl attend public schools. Brenda Kurowski argued that forcing her daughter to attend public school would violate her constitutional rights and religious beliefs.

In time, Martin Kurowski renewed his objections, arguing his daughter’s lack of exposure to any other persons or beliefs outside her mother’s church – the ruling doesn’t mention which church they attend – was harming their relationship, and he sought both more equal parenting time and to compel their daughter to attend public school.

The parents eventually agreed to expand the father’s time with the girl, and for their daughter to attend several classes in her local public school in 2009, when the girl was about 10 years old, but also remain in a home-school program. After trying it out, however, Brenda Kurowski argued that the new arrangement was causing their daughter “extreme difficulty” and that her “emotional and mental health have been negatively impacted by the increased time with (father).”

After further hearings and attempts to sort out their differences, the court ruled in 2009 that the girl should attend public schools.

“The parties reached an impasse regarding the exercise of their joint authority in relation to daughter’s school placement, and the trial court faced a circumstance in which it had to resolve a parenting matter over which father and mother shared joint decision-making authority,” Lynn wrote.

“Both parents enjoy the fundamental liberty interest to direct the upbringing and education of their children,” Lynn wrote, and “Each parent was equally entitled to the presumption that his or her respective decision was consonant with daughter’s best interests.”

Where they could not agree, however, the court had to decide, and Lynn found that Garner considered the evidence thoroughly, and decided in favor of public school, without violating any rules or anyone’s rights.

The court’s four other justices all concurred; there was no dissenting opinion.

Andrew Wolfe can be reached at awolfe@nashuatelegraph.com.