Richard Carranza's Last Stand
New York magazine|April 12-25, 2021
Mayor de Blasio hired an ''equity warrior'' as schools chancellor. How parental politics-and the pandemic-left him defeated
By Clare Malone. Photograph by Tania Franco Klein

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”—educationspeak 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.

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