Last week Newsweek published its annual rankings of America’s Top High Schools. This is a much awaited publication for those with children of that age and it is undoubtedly well circulated in the admissions offices of our colleges and universities.
These compilations also commonly hit the family lawyer’s desk whenever there is a hot dispute over primary custody or relocation. In reading the recent history of relocation cases, the decided focus of Superior Court cases is on the matter of how the relocation benefits the child and in many instances we are given these rating compilations by custody litigants who want to show that a new school would be “better” for the child or the present placement is “fine.”
Many judges and hearing officers deciding these cases will admit these magazines “for what their worth.” Technically, there are myriad evidentiary problems with any “ranking.” The content of the magazine is itself hearsay. The person making the statement that “Quaker Valley is the 271st best high school in the nation.” is not a named person at all. It is a magazine. So we don’t know the identity of the person who decided that Quaker Valley was No. 271 while Penncrest was No. 276. We also don’t know the specifics of how this was decided. The article will tell you about general parameters employed such as college matriculation and graduation rates and average SAT scores. But the typical editors who do the ranking don’t tell us how these metrics are weighted or whether a planetarium is a plus while a ceramics kiln is neutral. Lawyers who stand up and object to the admission of these rankings have excellent reasons why the objection should be sustained and most law school professors would harshly grade any student of Evidence who would admit “speculative hearsay compiled without ascertainable scientific foundation.” Of course you could subpoena the editors of Newsweek to explain all of this but, alas, they rarely come to court.
What really happens? Most judges this author has seen will admit the document over objection noting that the actual “value” of this as evidence is not easily ascertained. I suspect they then lug the magazine back into chambers and scan it first to see whether their high school got in. Then they will glance at the schools the litigants want to compare and spend a couple of minutes seeing what data there is that they can assess (e.g., grad rates and SAT scores). Because, even they realize that Newsweek and other magazines of its ilk don’t really spend the other 51 weeks of the year studying America’s 18,000+ high schools. Americans love rankings of all stripes and a magazine’s job is to amuse its audience.
The other thing that happens in chambers after the dust of a school enrollment fight settles is lamentation. I suspect that what most judges would privately tell the litigants is that if they truly wanted a positive outcome, the best thing two parents could do would be to agree on a school placement and support the child together in that placement. For most children a custody war is a diversion from life and education over which they have no control. In many instances it is clear that No. 36 ranked Conestoga High School is a superior school to No. 168 Fox Chapel. But outstanding kids from Fox Chapel go to Harvard too and in the vast majority of custody disputes, Harvard is not really on the horizon. There are always special cases where a child has really unique gifts (not as much as their parents think) or special educational challenges where a special educational “fit” is called for. But, most judges grade on the “curve.” They are not trying to raise young venture capitalists or nuclear physicists. They want children who will not commit crimes and pay taxes when they grow up. Judges get to see plenty of adults who are very bright but never mastered the “no crimes” or “pay taxes” thresholds of adult life. So often they are put off by parents who think that a child custody trial is a sound means of securing maximum educational achievement. Parents are often disappointed to discover that “The judge doesn’t seem to care.” Ironically, judges do care, but from their elevated view on the bench they often see quite clearly that moving a child from No. 284 Haverford High to No. 126 Kiski will not vastly improves the chances for post grad studies in math at Stanford.
The ratings wars will go on because we love quick answers to complex questions. And if you have a custody case where you want to enroll Eloise in No. 113 Upper St. Clair while the useless father wants to keep her at a school that doesn’t even have a ranking, be certain to get the August 11 edition of Newsweek and bring it to Court so the judge can see that you are a concerned parent. But don’t bet the down payment on a house in western Pennsylvania on the belief that the magazine is your ticket to a new life in a new town. It’s not how the cookie crumbles.