Ruling on Skipwith v. New York City Board of Education

Skipwith v. New York Board of Education Official Ruling excerpt

Excerpts from the official ruling:

Domestic Relations Court of the City of New York, Children’s court Division, New York County. In The Matter of Charlene SKIPWITH, Sheldon Rector, children twelve years of age.
December 15, 1958


…These parents assert, in justification of their refusal to send their children to these schools, that both schools offer educationally inferior opportunities as compared to the opportunities offered in schools of this city whose pupil population in largely white. This inferiority of educational opportunities, they assert, results from two conditions which they allege exist in these schools and for the existence of which conditions they claim the Board of Education is responsible. One of the alleged conditions is de facto racial segregation in these two schools all of whose pupils are either Negro or Puerto Rican. The other alleged concern is the discriminatory teacher staffing of these two schools with personnel having inferior qualifications to those possessed by teachers in junior high schools in New York City, whose pupil population is largely white.

As a consequence of the situation alleged to exist in these two schools, it is claimed that the children attending them are denied equal educational opportunities in violation of ‘equal protection of the laws’ guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States…

As was said in the Report of the Commission on Integration, submitted June 13, 1958:

‘Whether school segregation is the effect of law and custom as it is in the South, or has roots in residential segregation, as in New York City, its defects are inherent and incurable. In education there can be no such thing as ‘separate but equal.’ Educationally, as well as morally and socially, the only remedy for the segregated school is desegregation’...

Where, as here, power and responsibility for teacher assignment rests in the Board of Education, teachers who exercise that power are, in the…words of Mr. Justice Cardozo, ‘not acting in matters of merely private concern like the directors of agents of business corporations. They are acting in matter of public interest, matters immediately connected with the capacity of government to exercise its function.’…

The Board of Education can no more plead not guilty than could the Police Commissioner if he allowed patrolmen to choose not to accept dangerous or unpleasant assignments. No one would suppose that a new Police Commissioner would have performed his duty if he sought to remedy the situation by assigning police rookies to those tasks. Yet, in effect, that is all the Board of Education has done so far, in limiting the exercise of its power of assignment to the assignment of newly licensed teachers to the ‘X’ schools.*…

The courts of this State will not excuse failure of performance of a constitutional duty because the City of New York might be unwilling to pay the bill for the costs of what needs to be done…Nor will they relieve the Board of Education of its duties because of ‘hardship upon the existing teaching force’…

These parents have the constitutionally guaranteed right to elect no education for their children rather than to subject them to discriminatorily inferior education. I am wholly satisfied from their testimony and demeanor that this is not a case where parents have chosen to make such a choice without regard to the welfare of their children...In my judgment, the course upon which they embarked, and which brought them before this Court, was undertaken for the sake of their children and for the tens of thousands of other children like them who have been unfairly deprived of equal education.

The petitions are dismissed.

*From the ruling: “The term ‘X’ school is used to describe a school with a Negro and Puerto Rican population of 85% or more.”

Excerpts from the official ruling: Domestic Relations Court of the City of New York, Children’s court Division, New York County. In The Matter of Charlene SKIPWITH, Sheldon Rector, children twelve years of age. 15 December 1958.

Discussion Questions

  1. Initial assessment/review: Who wrote this document? When? What kind of document is it? For what audience(s) was it intended?
  2. In the Skipwith case the parents assert that their children's schools offer "inferior educational opportunities." Review the two reasons they give. What do you think of these reasons?
  3. According to Justice Polier (and Justice Cardozo) what is the difference between how teachers act and how directors of business act? Why is this significant in this case?
  4. Justice Polier makes a comparison between teachers and patrolmen. Do you agree or disagree with her reasoning? Why?
  5. The Skipwith case was brought before the court as a child welfare case because the parents were not sending their children to school. According to Justice Polier, these children were not being endangered by their parents' action. What is her argument supporting their actions? Do you agree or disagree with her argument? Why?
  6. What, if any, connections do you see between the schooling circumstances described in this case and circumstances within your own community?
  7. Who do you think should be held accountable for students' education in a community? (Refer back to the document for examples and think about your own community: students, parents, teachers, principals, Board of Education, local government, state government, federal government, officials in charge of housing and district lines, courts, community activists, etc.)

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Ruling on Skipwith v. New York City Board of Education." (Viewed on September 27, 2023) <>.


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