New York Magazine
Richard Carranza’s Last Stand
The would-be schools reformer who called it quits.
Richard carranza wasn’t Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first choice to be the city’s schools chancellor. Alberto M. Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, changed his mind—on live TV, no less—about taking the job at the 11th hour. De Blasio needed a new chancellor fast. ¶ With 1.1 million students, the New York City public-school system is the largest in the country, which ostensibly means that the chancellor’s job is influential and prestigious—an opportunity to change the lives of students and be seen on a national stage. You just have to survive the city’s blood-sport politics, play to its many vocal constituencies, and placate the nitpicking local media, all while staying on the right side of your boss, the mayor, who has his own problems. And when, four days after Carvalho’s demurral, on March 5, 2018, it was announced that Carranza—the former superintendent of San Francisco’s and Houston’s schools and a mariachi musician who had serenaded First Lady Chirlane McCray during his interview at Gracie Mansion—had gotten the job, he was up-front about his ambitious agenda to remake the schools on the model of equity. “There is no daylight between Mayor de Blasio and myself in terms of what we believe in, what our aspirations are for the children of New York City,” said Carranza, flanked by his wife and the mayor, at a press conference.
De Blasio knew he had hired an activist chancellor. The New York City public schools are a cauldron in which the city’s poverty, wealth, diversity, and ruthless competition churn. There are pristine elementary schools in well-off neighborhoods and specialized high schools that students have to pass a famously competitive exam to get into. But New York’s is among the country’s most segregated educational systems. Overall, nearly 70 percent of its students are Black or Latino, but three out of four of them attend a school with less than 10 percent white students. Meanwhile, 34 percent of white students attend a school that is more than half white. The segregation is even more stark with the Gifted & Talented program, which students have to test into: In 2018, the city’s elementary schools’ gifted classes enrolled about 16,000 students, close to 75 percent of whom were white or Asian; over the past decade, Black and Latino enrollment in the program has fallen significantly.
Carranza, charming and idealistic, was hired with the explicit agenda to make the schools more integrated and to fix the racial achievement gap. His supporters hailed him as an “equity warrior.” He grew up speaking Spanish in a working-class Mexican American household in Tucson and understood that schools could reproduce inequality as easily as they could provide opportunity. He still recalls what he saw as the racist reaction to his giving mariachi-music lessons as an extracurricular in his first teaching job in Arizona. It was a seminal moment. “I realized that if you want to make change, you have to have the authority to change,” he says. “And as a classroom teacher, I didn’t have authority, so then I got my administrative credential.” As New York’s chancellor, he would be making those changes on a mass scale in a seemingly progressive city.
Three years later, Carranza resigned, ground down by the city’s relentless politicking and the pandemic. His New York years were marked by losses of all kinds.
He lost a lot of weight, a transformation one observer told me “scans as self-flagellation.” His marriage broke up. Most devastatingly, he lost 11 friends and relatives to covid. By this past winter, he seemed so exhausted and emotionally frayed that allies and adversaries alike became concerned.
Carranza had in some ways weathered a nigh-impossible political moment, its emotional stakes turned way up by the pandemic. School integration, Josh Wallack, one of his deputy chancellors, pointed out, is a relatively new litmus test for politicians. Its implications make many white parents uncomfortable on a number of levels. “The loud voice of social justice is creating a lot of feelings of guilt for people,” said Camille Casaretti, the president of the Community Education Council in Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying District 15. For many parents, that guilt is in competition with their love for and investment in their child’s success, which means appeals to the greater good can fall on deaf ears.
It may be that for all his sincere belief, Carranza, a painfully naïve actor in the eyes of many familiar with the way change actually comes about in the city, wasn’t right for the fight.
“That man’s intentions, will, goals, and objectives come from the most authentic and pure place to do right by young people— it’s glowingly apparent,” said Christopher Emdin, a professor at Columbia Teachers College who has known Carranza for years. “Sometimes that’s not good enough.”
IN THE BEGINNING, Carranza was well liked. “When you’re with him, he’s yours,” said Tomás Hanna, the former head of human resources for the city’s Department of Education. “He’s just a very good soul. He would want to know how you were doing, like, ‘How’s la familia?’ ”
But Carranza’s apparent inability to take seriously the concerns of people with whom he disagreed cropped up early. Just a couple of weeks after he started, District 3, in Manhattan, announced changes to its middle-school admissions policies to prioritize low-income students. District 15 would later eliminate “screens”—education-speak for the test scores, arts auditions, and grades that elementary-school students formerly submitted when applying—and replace the system with a lottery that gives lowincome, English-language-learning, and homeless children greater opportunities for admission. The need to eliminate testing like this is a core belief of many reformers, including Carranza. The argument goes that testing, while designed to be objective, can never be so: Wealthy parents can prep their children with
tutors and lessons, so the test is less a measure of students’ capabilities than of their circumstances.
But many people were unhappy with the changes. Parents worried about their kids not getting a seat at the “right” school or academic rigor being affected. A report by NY1 on a contentious parents’ meeting at one Manhattan school went viral. Two days later, Carranza tweeted out a link to the video, his post quoting the incendiary headline appended to it by the website RAWStory: “WATCH: Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more Black kids to their schools.”
Politico’s New York Education newsletter called it “the tweet heard ’round the city.” It struck a vastly different tone than any message from previous chancellors had on issues of race.
The Gifted & Talented program, which has been around since the 1970s—and essentially functions as a refuge for the children of mostly white middle-class parents who might otherwise have felt they had to leave the city—became another flash point. Carranza’s view of families who want their kids in G&Ts is that they have been sold a false guarantee that their child will have a path to success in life. It’s understandable, Carranza said, but when that “perception becomes reality,” its effects damage the entire system. Carranza always tried to hew close to the pedagogy—what was it these parents thought their kids were getting in that class that they couldn’t get anywhere else? “I don’t begrudge them—it’s their children.
I get it; I’m a father too,” he said. (Carranza has two adult daughters.) “But what are we doing as a society? If all students have a better opportunity, then all students prosper. It’s not a zero-sum game.”
To some, Carranza’s plainspokenness about racial disparities was refreshing. To others, he was simply being dismissive of white and Asian parents’ concerns. “In Houston, he really pushed that community to be more thoughtful about engaging with the Latinx population,” said Emdin, who worked with Carranza there. “I was like, Well, is he gonna bring that same energy in New York? I mean, New York is a very different beast. It’s so much more political. The community is much more vocal. The press is so much more engaged. So do you operate with the same fervor?”
Carranza, confident of the justness of his policies, was undaunted. Shortly after he started, in June 2018, de Blasio proposed eliminating the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, which students take to get into eight of the city’s hypercompetitive schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. Those schools are only 10 percent Black or Latino. The mayor and his chancellor saw an opportunity to address this imbalance, proposing to replace the test with a system in which seats would be reserved for the top students at each of the city’s middle schools. The mayor’s office estimated that this would mean 45 percent of the offers would go to Black and Latino students. But the state legislature would need to sign off on the plan, as required by a 1971 law.
Many in the Asian community were outraged. Asian students accounted for 54 percent of specialized-high-school admissions in 2020. “For new immigrants, the test [is] something that is a leveling factor. It’s easy to prepare for, they know about it, they can buy a book, or they can buy a course,” advocate Chris Kwok told NY1 during a Sunset Park protest meeting. “They never had this problem when Stuyvesant [High School] was all white. They never had this problem when Stuyvesant was all Jewish,” Kenneth Chiu, another advocate, said. Carranza and de Blasio were both seen as the enemy.
Carranza was walloped by an “activation of constituencies around the specialized-high-school exam,” Wallack said, which hadn’t previously really existed. Lucas Liu, a parent and co-president of Place NYC, a group that is fighting to keep testing in place, called that the “rise of the Asian voice” and said it was scaring the powers that be. “We weren’t invited to sit at the table. We forcibly took our seat at the table.”
“I don’t think he misunderstood [the Asian community],” said Liu. “I would say he didn’t care.” In the end, the SHSAT reform bill failed in the New York State Legislature.
Carranza has his regrets. “It’s always better to have more dialogue than not and to include people at the very beginning of those conversations, especially around these issues that are so emotional for folks,” he said when we talked in January before his resignation. “We could have done more in that regard.”
He told me what he has said on other occasions—that, coming from conservative Texas, he was surprised to see how not progressive New York City actually was on school integration. But when he pointed that out, it didn’t go over well. “Foolish me,” he said to me. “I thought everybody would have said, ‘Wow, that can’t be okay. That’s not what we believe in.’”
Carranza was frustrated by New Yorkers’ sensitivity to change. He hadn’t accounted for the complicated mix of the striver’s scarcity mind-set and the nostalgia for a livable middle-class city that undergirded it all, and in his zeal, he seemed to miss the need to grease the wheels.
His predecessor, Carmen Fariña, by contrast, had worked in the system for years and was more bureaucrat than activist. “She knew where the bodies were buried. She totally understood the culture of buildings,” Hanna said. Fariña was also a longtime ally of de Blasio’s, going back to their days in Park Slope, when she was a superintendent and he was a school-board member.
“They had a lot of history together. They knew many of the same players in New York City politics and approached those problems with a similar sort of base of knowledge and set of assumptions,” Wallack said of Fariña and de Blasio. They shared, in other words, the same understanding of how to get things done. In an emailed response to my interview request, Fariña wrote that, given the ongoing schools crisis, she was “happy to be retired!”
Which is to say: The chancellor’s job is always hard, and you’re always going to get pushback. Carranza wanted to be de Blasio’s “bulldog” for reform, one person close to him said. He had been through this before with Houston’s board of education— “people just didn’t have the stomach to take the fight,” he’d said—and had expressed his frustration with the “political agendas” of board members. One Texas education observer told the New York Times that Carranza seemed to struggle with the internal politics of his job there, too.
One of Carranza’s other projects in New York was bringing a “culturally responsive” curriculum to schools—ensuring that lessons are engaging and relevant to kids from a range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In many ways, he wanted the schools to feel more welcoming to people like his younger self. Carranza once shared a vivid memory of his kindergarten teacher’s efforts toward this: “I still remember to this day, when I’m in department stores and I smell that perfume that she used to wear— because I couldn’t speak English, so I got lots of hugs,” he said. “She was creating a well-rounded social-emotional learning environment for me to be able to learn.”
He instituted anti-bias training for staff and pushed to fill the school libraries with books by a more diverse range of authors and to get teachers to incorporate a wider array of experiences into their classroom lessons—to think about teaching things like the Stonewall riots alongside the civilrights movement, for instance.
He soon became a target for the New York Post, which delighted in covering his “race-based agenda.” It didn’t help that three white DOE administrators filed a lawsuit claiming they had been unfairly demoted to make room for “woefully less prepared and qualified” replacements who were people of color. By 2019, Carranza was clearly frustrated. The failure of the SHSAT reform bill had squashed the kind of sweeping change he and de Blasio had hoped for. In a glimmer of the defiance that would come to characterize his final weeks as chancellor, Carranza gave a press conference in 2019 blasting the “forces in this city that want me to be the good minority and just be quiet, don’t say a word, don’t bring the race issue up. I will not be silenced. I will not be quiet.” That spring, he got onstage at the United Federation of Teachers conference wearing his mariachi suit and played with student musicians, as if to emphasize, one more time, whose side he was on. “It was damn sure ballsy for New York, where folks just want you buttoned up and being able to move things along and be politically savvy,” Emdin said. When I asked Carranza why he took such a hard-nosed approach, he told me about how the best math student he knew in Tucson had put his talents to use dealing drugs and ended up dead in the desert. “I’ve seen too much of that to acquiesce to incrementalism,” he told me.
THE PANDEMIC ONLY reinforced Carranza’s urgency to change the system. Now, everyone was paying attention to the problems of the schools, though some integration activists wished it hadn’t taken such a traumatic year to get certain parents invested in change. Many of the most vocal parents who supported in-person learning were white (though survey data showed a racially mixed group of parents wanted kids back in school), and things like a Vogue web feature on three mothers who had organized protests to get schools to reopen didn’t help.
“It’s been annoying and frustrating for people like me,” said Matt Gonzales, the head of NYU’s Integration and Innovation Initiative. “We actually have been out here for years doing equity work, and Vogue has never done a spread on us.” Progressive education activists said school reopening was happening only to placate white parents, who were using the covid-era struggles of Black and brown children—many of whom had been struggling before the pandemic—to argue for what benefited their own families at the moment. Emdin spoke of “affluent white liberal folks who, in many ways, have taken up the language of equity” during the pandemic’s education crisis. He thought the phenomenon could be leveraged: Temporary interest alignment mixed with white guilt could prove politically potent, if only it could be chan
neled productively. “You can use their words in this moment to have them support the work going forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, the crisis seemed to bring out the worst in the mayor’s instincts. As one former DOE official put it, “The mayor makes decisions, stays steadfast in his refusal to shift from said decision, doubles down and doubles down and doubles down on said decision until such a time that that decision becomes so unpopular and so untenable that no one will be happy when he actually changes his mind.” Carranza did something that wasn’t easy, though: He got the schools open for in-person learning in the fall. New York’s was the first of the nation’s big school systems to do that.
covid, the ensuing economic crisis, and the death of George Floyd swirled together and seemed to put Carranza in a prophetic mind-set. “Now people can’t say there isn’t injustice in terms of how certain people are treated and others are not. That’s the game changer,” he told me. He was feeling the pull of the historical moment; he was angry, visibly so. New York has not had a school board since 2002, when the mayor was given control over the schools. In its stead, there is the 15-person Panel for Education Policy. Each borough president appoints one member; Community Education Council presidents elect one member, a sort of independent figure representing the parents’ voice; and the mayor appoints the remaining nine, meaning that the PEP is effectively in his pocket.
During the pandemic, the monthly public Zoom meetings of the PEP became an outlet for all the inchoate rage that housebound, homeschooling parents were experiencing. The August 2020 PEP was a particularly rough night. It was five months into the pandemic, people were protesting police violence, and tempers were frayed. Board members were in tank tops and sleeveless shirts, and at the meeting’s start, golden light spilled through window slats. By the end, more than nine hours later, one board member was rocking a baby to sleep, and Carranza had changed from his dress shirt into a T-shirt and was clearly frustrated. He said, “I always heard, ‘New Yorkers like it straight, they like it tough, we’re tough’ ”—and here he gruffed up his voice in imitation—“I don’t know, when I give it back to them tough, some people don’t like it.”
As for racial justice, Carranza said he had been talking about Black Lives Matter for years. “Read the articles. Who came after me?” He went on, smiling a mirthless smile. “Where were you then? So don’t ever question my commitment—” He opened his mouth and seemed about to yell, then spent a few moments composing himself before going on. “Don’t question my commitment to that because I will not be quiet about that.”
It was the pandemic that really did in his relationship with de Blasio, to whom Carranza wasn’t a chancellor so much as a “staffer to the mayor,” a person with knowledge of the DOE’s dynamics said. Carranza chafed at the 20- and 30-something City Hall aides who rejected his recommendations despite his decades of experience. He resented that he was the head of arguably the most influential school district in the country and yet was being given limited decision-making responsibility, they said.
“At what point do you either stop keeping your job or start doing your job?” they said, repeating a phrase Carranza has used often. He felt like a quisling to the education-reform cause, right at the moment it mattered most. One person who worked with the mayor and chancellor said Carranza had become detached and aloof from the day-to-day of the job at some point, so de Blasio had to step in. Instead, Carranza was turning to a like-minded world outside City Hall—he became “more of an activist than a bureaucrat,” the person with knowledge of the dynamics at the DOE said.
In the midst of all this tumult, Carranza’s personal life was growing bleak. He spent most of his time alone in his plant-filled apartment in Prospect–Lefferts Gardens— his ex-wife had moved back West— attending endless Zoom meetings. As he learned of the many deaths among his family and friends, he grew despondent. He found some comfort in playing his guitar or FaceTiming his family. When activists with megaphones gathered outside his building during the summer to protest the DOE’s school-security policy after the killing of George Floyd, Carranza was inside, alone, attending the Zoom funeral of a relative.
If Carranza’s inner turmoil had been festering for some time, the December 2020 PEP meeting seemed to mark a public breaking point. At the meeting’s start, he appeared onscreen in front of a seasonal backdrop: a red poinsettia sitting beneath a wall-mounted guitar. But the mood was far from jolly. With covid rates spiking in November, Carranza had been forced by the terms of the deal the city had made with the teachers union to go back to fullremote learning. Although schools had begun reopening, members of the panel and parents pummeled the administration’s response to the pandemic, the uneven distribution of resources, and racism in public education writ large.
By hour three, Carranza had had about enough. “You have no rules!” he all but shouted at the PEP members. Five hours in, he was visibly irate. He spoke first in Spanish, then switched to English to translate his remarks, saying he had been talking to Spanish-speaking New Yorkers. “With all due respect, don’t lecture us about what we need,” he said. “I’ve lost eight family members and close friends to this covid disease. Nobody needs to tell me what this means. I’m feeling it.” The PEP, he said, had no ultimate responsibility; the moral weight fell elsewhere.
“If somebody dies because of the decision that I made or the mayor made, I have to own that,” Carranza said. “You don’t have to live with the decision—I have to live with the decision, and that keeps me up every night.” Here his voice snagged a little, something between a breath and a dry sob. His face contorted. “That makes it so I can’t sleep every night.”
The normally unflappable PEP chair, Vanessa Leung,
looked stricken as she took back control of the meeting, which adjourned soon after. “I can tell you that many in the DOE were very concerned about him,” said Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, a mother and activist. She reached out to Carranza’s allies after the meeting. “I was like, ‘Look, I’m not a fan of whatever it is that he’s trying to do right now, but I am really worried.’ And I have a great relationship with DOE employees, and we were all like, ‘He is losing his mind. Like, he is having a mental breakdown.’ ”
By now, his alienation from the mayor was becoming obvious to all. According to one person who worked with the mayor and the chancellor, by the winter of 2020, being around Carranza and de Blasio was like “dealing with divorced parents.”
“Something changed” about Carranza during his final months on the job, this person said. He had always had flashes of defiance and combativeness, but that side of him seemed to win out over the warm, charismatic part—he became “principled to a fault.” He was going to “die on a hill for no real good reason.” He became emotional to the point of tears on one call with the mayor about policy disagreements. De Blasio’s incrementalism—and the pandemic’s stresses—had overpowered Carranza’s efforts to make real change.
Education reformers did score a small victory at the end of December with the news that middle-school screens would be dropped for the coming school year. Although the change will last for only one year, it’s an opportunity to test out the idea systemwide, and it comes as the city is holding a mayoral election; whoever moves into Gracie Mansion will decide how much desegregation will be pushed. Andrew Yang, the current front-runner in the primary and the former head of a testprep company, wants to keep the Gifted & Talented program in place. Yang has said some parents are “voting with their feet” by leaving the public schools because of the pandemic and that getting rid of the G&T would be yet another impediment to keeping them.
Carranza wanted the December middle-school proposal to go further, to get rid of screens for high schools as well.