School & District Management

New York City’s Equity-Minded Schools Chief Resigns

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 26, 2021 4 min read
Richard Carranza, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, arrives to Public School 188 The Island School as students arrive for in-person classes, on, Sept. 29, 2020, in the Manhattan borough of New York.
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Richard A. Carranza, the chancellor of the New York City schools, announced Feb. 26 he will step down from the job next month.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as your chancellor and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart,” he wrote in a Twitter thread. “It is incredibly hard to say goodbye to you. You are the most dedicated and hardworking colleagues I have ever had the privilege of working with.”

He’ll be succeeded by a longtime educator, Meisha Ross Porter, who is currently the executive superintendent of the Bronx borough.

A passionate champion of education equity who spoke out about re-integrating the city’s dramatically segregated schools, Carranza was never able to push his plans through to completion in the district. The New York Times, which extensively chronicled Carranza’s tenure, said the breaking point came over disagreements with city Mayor Bill de Blasio about desegregation.

The two have never quite jelled as partners, with Carranza pushing for more radical overhauls and De Blasio generally seen as favoring more-modest changes. The New York Times reported that Carranza continued to oppose the city’s gifted-and-talented programs, which predominately serve white students and rely on an admissions tests for students as young as 4.

In 2018, the two men pushed to overhaul admissions at the city’s eight highly selective high schools, which use an entrance exam policy that has all but shut out Black and Latino students. That plan, which required legislative support in Albany, never passed, and it drew massive condemnation from Asian American parents in the city.

There were past clues that Carranza’s attitude toward gifted-and-talented programs might also end up being a hot-button issue in New York.

While chancellor in San Francisco, he launched a program to detrack math courses beginning with algebra. (Math remains among the most highly tracked subjects in U.S. school systems, even within buildings.) That effort, too, was excoriated by some families, as well as gifted education advocates, and continues to be controversial.

Carranza was honored as an EdWeek Leader to Learn From in 2015 for his work in San Francisco increasing supports for bilingual education and hiring skilled teachers to work with the district’s English-language learners.

Almost nothing during Carranza’s nearly three-year tenure in New York came easily. He was not even the top candidate for the job: He was selected after Miami Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who had been offered and accepted the job, reneged on live television.

He inherited a district which, in addition to the burgeoning conversation about race and segregation, included baggage from previously established initiatives. They included an expensive, $700 million Renewal Schools program that was aimed at turning around low-performing schools. That effort was largely considered a failure.

School policing remains a hot-button issue in the city, and New York has not gone as far as cities like Los Angeles in cutting its police budget. But Carranza did oversee one change, rewriting the school system’s contract with its school police force to specify that officers should not be involved in matters of routine discipline.

The COVID-19 pandemic added yet another layer of complication. The city was one of the last to close for in-person instruction last spring, which drew the ire of frightened parents and teachers. Then, as more research suggested that schools were not main transmission sites for the virus, the city faced further criticism over its agreement to peg reopening to what critics said was an overly cautious number.

The city has now moved to reopen many K-5 schools, though many parents say that remote learning, which serves the majority of students, continues to be lackluster.

A unique—and nationally watched—school district

Carranza’s successor will be the first Black woman to lead the city schools. She will begin March 15.

The New York district is in the unique position of both being symbolically important, even as it’s completely distinct.

It is by far the largest district in the nation, with more than 1 million students. It’s sprawling, with dozens of local superintendents. The mayor, governor, and state legislature—all with different political constituencies and priorities—control different parts of it, making any change difficult.

Yet it’s often watched as a bellwether on school policy nationally. The searing conversation in the district about reopening for in-person learning during COVID-19, for example, was largely viewed as a test as to whether other large urban districts could also figure out a path forward.

In an uncharacteristically complimentary statement, the United Federation of Teachers called Carranza “a real partner in our efforts to open school safely.”

“Too often he had to fight behind the scenes to keep the needs of students, staff, and their families ahead of politics,” the teachers’ union said. “We wish him well.”

Stephen Sawchuk, Associate Editor contributed to this article.

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