Carranza leaves behind a lofty aim, unachieved

New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza.
New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza.
Sean Pressley
New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza.

Carranza leaves behind a lofty aim, unachieved

The New York City schools chancellor made integration his top priority and main talking point. He’s stepping down with little to show for it.
March 7, 2021

When Richard Carranza showed up to run New York City’s public schools, he did not have a filter when it came to discussing integration. After being appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2018, he got started on an agenda to address such inequities until he ran into pushback from parents and teachers. But all else would eventually be overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing Carranza to deal with what de Blasio described to him as a “war scenario,” the chancellor told City & State.One year after the outbreak began, Carranza announced that he had reached his limit – but it remains in dispute exactly which limit. Carranza said he needed a break from managing a system of more than 1 million students in the middle of a pandemic, but speculation abounds that he and the mayor were butting heads over how far City Hall would take his integration agenda.

“I know the pandemic has not been easy for you or for any New Yorker. And make no mistake, I am a New Yorker. While not by birth, by choice,” he said with an emotional voice at a Feb. 26 news conference. “A New Yorker who has lost – a New Yorker who has lost 11 family and close childhood friends to this pandemic and a New Yorker who, quite frankly, needs to take time to grieve. I feel that I can take that time now because of the place that we are in and the work that we have done together.”

It was a surprise announcement, which The New York Times reported came after heated disagreements between Carranza and de Blasio, who exerts mayoral control over the nation’s largest public school system. Neither Carranza nor de Blasio commented about the Times article to City & State, while their staff deferred to statements from the news conference to answer reporter questions about Carranza’s decision to leave. He also had not scheduled any exit interviews.

“For three years, he’s given his heart and soul to the kids of this city, and it's been a labor of love,” de Blasio said at the press conference about Carranza. “I've worked shoulder to shoulder with him. I've seen it. And a lot has happened in these three years to move us forward.”

Meisha Porter, 47, is to replace Carranza as leader of the massive school system after he leaves on March 15. Porter, the current Bronx executive superintendent, will be the first Black woman to take on the job of chancellor.

Since Carranza’s appointment in 2018, the 54-year-old chancellor’s agenda has been largely focused on racial integration. Carranza is a second-generation American whose grandparents were from Mexico, and he speaks fluent Spanish. He arrived in New York City after serving as superintendent in Houston and in San Francisco before that, speaking bluntly to New Yorkers about how to tackle segregation within the schools. New York City schools remain among the most segregated in the country. Of all Black and Hispanic students, 74.6% attend a school with less than 10% white students, while 34.3% of white students attend a school with more than 50% white students. The racial disparity is also economic: Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend a school where more than 75% of students experience poverty.

“It hasn’t been a colossal, sudden blossoming that every kid in the city schools is getting what they need and what they deserve. But I think he has pushed the system forward.” – Michael Rebell, professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College, Columbia University

Carranza and de Blasio made some limited progress on integration, including providing $2 million for the city’s 32 local school districts to work on their own desegregation plans. The pandemic also presented an opportunity for some temporary measures that could advance integration, including recently removing middle school screenings that relied on academics-based admissions for next year. Carranza and the mayor were also credited for accepting many of the recommendations of a Diversity Advisory Group that was charged with coming up with policies that advance school integration.

In other areas, graduation rates improved under Carranza’s tenure. The percentage of students who started high school and graduated within four years was 78.8% in 2020, up from 77.3% a year earlier. College readiness rates also have been inching up, though critics claim the numbers are higher because of so-called “diploma mills,” which are high schools with above average graduation rates that mask lower college readiness rates. The last measure is one closely watched by experts, who credit Carranza for pushing an agenda while his hands were tied by mayoral control.

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Richard Carranza
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Richard Carranza
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Sean Pressley
“It hasn't been a colossal, sudden blossoming that every kid in the city schools is getting what they need and what they deserve,” said Michael Rebell, professor of law and educational practice and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “But I think he has pushed the system forward.”

Observers say that while much more work still needs to be done on integration, Carranza is due credit for igniting the issue with blunt words no previous administrator, or even de Blasio, was willing to express before him. “Not everybody is ready to have those conversations,” said Naomi Peña, whose children attended public school and is president of Community Education Council District 1.

The chancellor’s push for desegregation still managed to alienate certain groups. Asian American parents mounted protests after the chancellor and de Blasio announced a plan to end the entrance exams for the city’s eight specialized high schools shortly after Carranza’s arrival. The plan threatened to eliminate about half the school seats held by Asian students at the specialized schools, including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, where they have been a majority. Asian American parents responded with chants of “Fire Carranza!” joining other critics of the chancellor, most of whom have been conservative and white. Because the test for the specialized schools is required by the state Legislature, the entrance exams have stayed.

Carranza wasn’t shy about pointing out his perceptions of existing racism within the schools as well. “WATCH: Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools,” he tweeted in 2018, reposting a Raw Story report about Upper West Side parents reacting critically to one of his desegregation plans. In some cases, Carranza has publicly apologized for having heated exchanges with parents who disagreed with him. His persistence on the topic of segregation even led to the start of an online petition calling for his termination a year ago.

“As a teacher committed to social justice and equity, I welcomed the Chancellor wholeheartedly and truly believed he could lead us to where we need to go. He proved me wrong,” wrote Julie Milner, a lawyer and former teacher from Elmhurst, Queens, who commented on the petition and complained that Carranza was “marginalizing Asian voices.”

Shino Tanikawa, co-chair of the Education Council Consortium, an advocacy group, said Carranza’s unvarnished words were necessary.

“I think we needed, as a city, to hear them,” Tanikawa told City & State. “To have a chancellor who comes in and is able to say things that he said, for those of us who were working on school integration, that was incredibly rewarding and refreshing. Finally, here was a man who could say it like it was, calling a spade a spade. Maybe we can actually move forward because we can now articulate what the problem is, which we were not able to do until he arrived.”

“Between the pandemic, the end of the administration, it's really been a tough position for Richard at the end.” – United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew

When COVID-19 emerged, Carranza’s job changed dramatically. He helped usher in remote learning and vowed that it was here to stay, essentially putting an end to snow days. He later was tasked with making sure school buildings were safe for students and teachers when New York became the first major school system to resume in-person learning in the fall. Integration continued on his list of priorities, plus addressing hot-button issues like the cancellation of testing for gifted students and inequities that continue to skew admissions to the city’s specialized schools.

But the closing and reopening of schools came with unprecedented challenges, miscommunications and concerns. Not all students had computers to learn from home while there were 200,000 children with disabilities and 114,000 who were homeless. Later, as New York City moved to be the first major public school system to reopen in response to declining infection rates, there remained concerns over aging ventilation systems in school buildings and worries of possible school nurse and teacher shortages. Parents were slow to let their children return, even though many were anxious for an end to months of learning from home.

Critics of mayoral control over the public schools in New York City say the policy undermines a chancellor's authority, and that Carranza was no exception when it came to working for de Blasio. “Control, I think that's been the toughest part for him,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing 200,000 teachers and school personnel, said of Carranza. A term-limited de Blasio will leave office at the end of this year, which means it’s likely a new mayor will bring in a new chancellor, even possibly to replace Porter. Carranza, meanwhile, has continued in what some consider to be an almost impossible job. “Between the pandemic, the end of the administration, it's really been a tough position for Richard at the end,” said Mulgrew.

During an interview with City & State on Feb. 17, Carranza reflected back on the past three years and what it has been like pushing his agenda for the schools, which he said was in agreement with de Blasio’s – and not just a case of following orders. “I think the fact that the mayor appointed me as chancellor speaks to the fact that he and I are aligned in terms of how we view education. But at the end of the day, the mayor is the mayor of the city of New York and 1.1 million of his citizens are the children in our schools,” Carranza said during the 45-minute Zoom call.

He showed little indication of a falling out with the mayor that may have led to his decision to resign. “The mayor and Carranza had a good relationship,” an administration source, who requested anonymity to protect their job, told City & State. “Carranza was just more radical than the mayor.” The source noted how Carranza had favored eliminating testing for the city’s Gifted and Talented program, which has been criticized for not granting fair access to students of color. The exams were killed this year, but because a city education panel rejected a testing contract in what was viewed as a rebuke to de Blasio. Student interviews and a lottery will be used instead.

The administration source said that Carranza was pushing an agenda to integrate schools that failed to take into account the time-consuming process of government, which de Blasio oversees. “This is not a dictatorship,” the source said, defending the mayor and his relationship with the chancellor.

Schools have started a conversation with parents on how students who are considered "exceptional," should be taught. “I'll tell you, it's usually not in a segregated program,” wrote the chancellor in an email followup to the interview. He also offered his insights on how the city’s specialized schools could become more diversified moving forward.

“People will say to me sometimes, ‘So you work for the mayor.’ No, but I am working for the children.” – outgoing New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza

“We’re bound by a state law from the 1970s to administer a single test that determines who gets admitted to specialized high schools. I’ve been crystal clear since I became chancellor – this is not a fair or equitable way to run this process, and the test creates a barrier and results in segregation. No single test should determine a student’s future. It must be repealed and we have made important, unprecedented progress on this,” he said.

Carranza wrote that a goal was set of reserving 20% of seats at each specialized high school for students in the Discovery program, a summer enrichment program that helps high-performing, underserved students gain admission to a specialized high school. But he remained insistent that the Specialized High School Admissions Test be eliminated. “We’ve moved the conversation forward in substantial ways, yet adults are standing in the way of what’s right for New York City’s children, and initiatives like this alone aren’t going to move the needle to where I would like it to be,” he said, in a reference to the state Legislature’s requirement of the exams.

COVID-19 made some inequities worse, such as lack of access to technology, but it also created opportunities for at least temporarily ditching biased admissions criteria. “We have long been addressing historical inequities, many of which COVID-19 exacerbated,” Carranza said. “And (we) ushered in new admissions changes, such as the pause on middle school academic screens and the removal of geographic priorities for high schools, to open up access and opportunity for more children in every neighborhood in the city.”

The chancellor gave only one acknowledgment that he might no longer be around, as he described what his message would be to the next mayor and chancellor:

“My message would be, ‘Don't ever forget who you're working for,’” Carranza said. “People will say to me sometimes, ‘So you work for the mayor.’ No, but I am working for the children. That's my job to work for the children. So my message would be, ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it, but make it better, and always remember you're working for children.’”

Ralph Ortega
Ralph Ortega
is City & State's Editor in Chief.
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