Gotham Gazette

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Unable to Move De Blasio, Carranza Leaves a Still Deeply Divided School System

holds ava photo

Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In July 2018, a few months after New York City welcomed a new schools chancellor, The Atlantic asked, “Can Richard Carranza Integrate the Most Segregated School System in the Country?”

Now we have our answer. On Friday, Carranza announced his resignation, attributing it to the emotional toll the pandemic had taken on him. But many observers believe — and The New York Times reported — that Carranza decided to leave at least partly because it had become clear that Mayor de Blasio did not share his commitment to ending segregation in the nation’s largest school system.

So with 10 months left in office, de Blasio, who ran for mayor decrying New York’s “tale of two cities,” leaves New York public schools with two systems, divided by race, class, and resources. The question is whether the battles of the last seven years — and Carranza’s tenure — will lay the groundwork for the next mayor to end that split. 

Integration advocates say Carranza’s three years have not been devoid of accomplishment. They cite his overseeing integration plans in Manhattan’’s District 3 and Brooklyn’s District 15, laying the groundwork for similar efforts in other districts, instituting an at least temporary end to screened admission to middle schools, and launching an ambitious program of anti-bias training for teachers. 

Above all they commend the outgoing chancellor’s unabashed advocacy for integration. 

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, praised Carranza as a strong leader “who’s very clear on what his agenda is and…who didn’t have any problem speaking out when white parents came after him” and when the New York Post went after him. “He has never backed down,” she said.

“Carranza used the bully pulpit to elevate the issue in a way no previous chancellor had,” Richard Kahlenberg, director of K–12 equity at the Century Foundation and a member of the executive committee for the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group, said by email.

But the last three years brought resistance from a supposedly progressive mayor who lacked either the conviction or the backbone to fight for true equity. “No chancellor has ever highlighted racial justice the way that Chancellor Carranza did. The big disappointment was he was dealing with an obstructionist mayor,” said Matt Gonzales, director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at NYU Metro Center.

The angry town hall meetings and the attacks on Carranza in The Post and elsewhere also highlighted once again how strong the resistance to equity can be and made clear that many white and Asian parents believe the system, unfair though it may be, is good for their children and should remain.

“Those citizens with the most political power in the city are often defenders of the status quo, because they perceive the status quo to directly benefit their children. For many people, the practical considerations outweigh the philosophical agreement with school diversity,” Stefan Lallinger, a fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote by email last year.

School integration never appeared at the top of de Blasio’s agenda. He boasts of being a public-school parent but both his children went to academically selective elite public schools for middle school and high school (as did mine). In an early stint on a local school board in Brooklyn, de Blasio helped devise a choice system for middle schools that hardened racial and economic divisions in the area’s middle schools — a program that, owing to community action, has since been dismantled. 

Tellingly his campaign rhetoric on divides in the city did not focus on K-12 education. But school integration  became a kind of elephant in the room when, a few months after de Blasio’s inauguration, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a report finding that New York State had the most segregated schools in the country, owing largely to educational segregation in New York City, and that the system was becoming increasingly divided. 

Students began speaking out loudly and eloquently about the effect segregated schools had on their education and organizing around the issue. Some politicians echoed their calls, and the City Council passed a few measures aimed at the problem while a few members made the issue a priority. 

There was “a hope, if not an expectation” that de Blasio and his first schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, would take on segregation, recalls David Bloomfield, a professor of education law at City University. But he says, “The best Carmen could come up with” was a suggestion that students have pen pals of different backgrounds and de Blasio would not even say “segregation.” Instead the mayor focused on universal pre-K and 3K, along with expanding access to advanced placement and computer sciences courses — all of which, de Blasio said, would expand opportunity for all children. 

Then, in 2018, after his first choice for next schools chancellor suddenly bailed out, de Blasio appointed Carranza, the Houston school superintendent and a grandchild of Mexican immigrants. Carranza was quick to call out city schools for being deeply divided and zeroed in on schools that use grades, test scores, and other measures to admit some children — and not others — as a key driver of that segregation. “Why are we screening kids in a public-school system? That is, to me, antithetical to what I think we all want for our kids,” he said. 

The move to get rid of screens was a constant of the next three years but repeatedly fell far short of Carranza’s goal. 

The first round involved the test that serves as the sole basis for admission to the city’s eight academically elite Specialized High Schools. By the time Carranza arrived, de Blasio was already planning to call for junking the test in favor of a system where top students from every city middle school would be chosen. Because of a state law passed in 1971, the change required state approval — at least for the three largest and most prestigious of the schools.

It immediately ran into a buzz saw, particularly in the Asian community where many families see a high score on the admissions test as a ticket to success. De Blasio had not consulted with Asian leaders and parents beforehand, fueling sentiment that his policy was targeting Asians. Carranza reinforced that when he said, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”

Few if any prominent politicians backed the mayor’s specialized high school admissions plan. By September 2019, de Blasio was acknowledging he had failed and that he might be open to keeping the test after all.

Lallinger of the Century Foundation said the problem with the proposal was not its substance. “The failure to enact it was entirely a political failure. There was no meaningful stakeholder engagement before it was announced, and no opportunities to tweak it to address the concerns of some constituencies before it was presented as an alternative to the status quo,” he wrote in an email last summer. The retreat on specialized schools was the first of many. 

In 2019, the School Diversity Advisory Group, which the mayor named in 2017 in response to significant pressure to desegregate the city’s schools, released two sets of integration proposals. The first report, issued in February, had 67 recommendations, such as setting goals for diversity and devising a more culturally responsive curriculum. The administration embraced 62 of them. 

The group’s far more sweeping report landed that summer. It looked at the system of choosing students for coveted schools and essentially called for blowing it up. Middle schools, it said, should no longer use admissions criteria such as grades, attendance, and standardized test scores. High schools should abandon lateness, attendance, and geography as criteria for admitting students and instead adopt admissions policies that would create diversity. 

Perhaps most controversially the report called for a complete rethinking of the elementary school gifted and talented program, including elimination of the test that determines which children will gain the coveted seats.  

The reaction was harsh and immediate. Critics charged that the proposals, if accepted, would spark middle class flight from the city. National figures weighed in with Fox television host Tucker Carlson accusing Carranza of “leading the charge” to sow “racial division in America’s largest city.” 

Few New Yorkers who have seen de Blasio’s handling of tough issues, such as police reform, were surprised at what happened next. The mayor — who was running for president at the time — barely acknowledged the recommendations, didn’t meet with the group that he had appointed, and downplayed the importance of integrating schools. “All the theory about how we create a utopian world, you know how we get everything to be perfectly balanced at all, that’s not what parents are talking to me about,” he said at a press conference that September. He pledged a review of the group’s recommendations, but there’s no evidence that happened. De Blasio’s February 2020 State of the City speech did not mention school integration.

The genie, though, would not go back in the bottle. 

Angry over calls to eliminate tests as an admissions criteria, a proposed integration plan in Queens, and a community school board member in Brooklyn who referred to Asians as “yellow,” activists, many of them Asian, vented their ire at Carranza. They demonstrated at his town halls, holding signs demanding he be fired, and charged that they had been barred from a March meeting at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School. De Blasio defended Carranza against charges of racism but remained largely silent on the issues. 

“De Blasio allowed the equity agenda to be demonized” and be tied to Carranza, said Gonzales, who served on the School Diversity Advisory Group. “He was a brown man who spoke about racial justice and that’s what happens.”

For his part, Carranza, in announcing his resignation, seemed to acknowledge he could have done better at reaching out to various groups in the city.

On the other side, frustrated that sweeping change seemed stalled, students staged walkouts at individual schools during the first half of the school year and planned to up the ante with a citywide school walkout. 

Then the pandemic hit. The shift to remote learning threw the screening metrics into disarray, as state standardized tests used for high school and middle school admissions were canceled, and the city scrapped traditional grades for grades K-8. The specialized high school test and elementary school gifted test seemed in jeopardy as some educators and politicians questioned the validity of tests when so many students’ lives were disrupted. They expressed concern about the safety of in-person testing and grumbled about spending money on them at a time when the city faced massive budget cuts. 

Carranza clearly hoped to seize the moment. In April, he told the Association of Latino Superintendents and Supervisors he was “not allowing” people to talk about returning to normal because that normal was rife with inequities. “We see this as an opportunity to finally push and move and be very strategic in a very aggressive way what we know is the equity agenda for our kids,” Carranza said. “Never waste a crisis.”

Soon after came another crisis: George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis. The ensuing focus on racial injustice in America reinforced arguments that screened schools were inherently unfair and even racist. Teens Take Charge stepped up its assault on screens and released city data showing that some selective high schools with large numbers  of Black and Latino applicants tended to admit more of their White and Asian applicants than their Black and Latino ones. 

To the frustration of many parents, the administration repeatedly delayed deciding how it would handle admissions for next school year. But when it finally began announcing its admission policies in December, some screens, including controversial ones, remained. 

At least for this year, middle schools cannot use criteria such as grades and attendance to select students but will choose them by lottery. High schools can no longer give preference to students from their Community School District, ending the policy that made schools in Manhattan’s affluent District 2 disproportionately white and privileged. High schools can, however, continue to choose students using test scores, interviews, and portfolios, and many of them are doing that. 

Some critics worry the confusion about new criteria and some of the changes could make the system even more unfair. 

“We are frustrated that the DOE has missed an opportunity for truly transformative change by failing to remove all academic screening for high schools, even as a temporary measure. The lack of valid metrics during the pandemic, when already-existing inequities were magnified, highlights the baselessness of screening policies in general,” Parents for Responsible, Equitable, Safe Schools said in a statement. 

The city also decided to keep the Specialized High School test, citing the state law.

The biggest furor came over the gifted and talented test, which had been given one-on-one by proctors to children who would enter kindergarten through third grade the following September. Many consider this the most egregious of New York’s screens, a belief bolstered by the fact that no other school system selects children for gifted programs this way. Experts argue that testing children as young as four — before most have had many influences beyond their family — tells you more about the child’s home than the child. In New York, it tells you about race: three quarters of kindergarteners in the city’s gifted programs in 2017-18 were white or Asian, even though white and Asian students accounted for only about a third of city kindergarten students. 

Success on the test puts students on track for future academic success. Children in the gifted program are likely to land in a selective middle school, which is then a path to passing the Specialized High School test. 

The normally toothless Panel for Educational Policy barred the city from issuing a contract for the gifted and talented test this year, but de Blasio remained adamant about finding a way to screen children. The administration decreed that, to qualify for the program, little children would have to get recommendations from their preschool programs or be interviewed.

Even supporters of screened programs balked, the absurdity of the plan seemingly evident to everyone but the mayor, who also said he would be offering a longer-term reform plan for gifted and talented later this calendar year. 

“They’ve chosen the system that has been proven to be the least effective for identifying gifted students who are of color, or low-income, or English learners…Subjective evaluations have always benefited the wealthy and middle class,” Alina Adams, an education writer and school choice advocate, told the Post.

M. Rene Islas, former executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, which advocates for gifted programs, said he was unaware of any evidence that young children could be identified as gifted in a remote interview and that allowing evaluators to Zoom into children’s homes could introduce a whole new set of biases. “I’m really worried about that,” he said, according to Chalkbeat. “I don’t think that’s going to help with equity.”

Although Carranza and de Blasio have downplayed policy differences, the mayor’s stubborn endorsement of the gifted and talented admissions was probably too much for the chancellor. The Times reported that Carranza had drafted a resignation letter after a heated conversation with de Blasio over the future of gifted and talented classes. 

There are many possible reasons as to why Carranza resigned. “Maybe we should just take him at his word that he was simply exhausted and vulnerable,” Bloomfield said. With the de Blasio administration going into its final months many officials are leaving — in fact a number at the education department already have. Others look to the atmosphere in the mayor’s office and what many see as his propensity for micro-managing.

With Carranza out the door, de Blasio’s legacy on school integration will remain one of weakness, at best, and opposition at worst. He will be seen as someone who either did not believe in equity or was too timid to take on the powerful forces supporting the status quo.

When de Blasio was elected, advocates had “thought we had someone who would be a champion,” Ansari said. Instead the mayor did not back Carranza up when he was under attack and flouted the wishes of the Panel for Educational Policy when it blocked the gifted and talented test. “The mayor’s not all in on democracy, let alone equity,” she said.

Nyah Berg of New York Appleseed, which advocates for school integration, also blames de Blasio for stalling the drive for a more equitable school system. “So much could have been done and done sooner if it were not for the lame duck de Blasio administration obstructing progress for integration at every turn. It will be hard to judge Carranza’s leadership as he was never allowed to truly lead and was micromanaged by a mayor who has shown no moral courage, leadership or intent to uphold his promise in addressing his ‘Tale of Two Cities,’” she said by email.

In resigning Carranza said that, while “it’s never been my style to look at the coulda shoulda  woulda,” he would have done more to engage with communities. Gonzales hopes that incoming chancellor Meisha Ross Porter’s long experience in New York City schools and status as a lifelong New Yorker will help her do that and “move things forward” during the next ten months — or beyond if the next mayor lets her stay on.

As Porter works to fully reopen the city’s schools, integration advocates will be looking to shape the debate about education in the mayoral campaign and elect someone who will take on what de Blasio didn’t. 

They will also be examining the structure of mayoral control of city schools. Ansari said that issue has been “simmering” for a while but that the chancellor's resignation was “an aha moment for me”: “We could have had big change,” she said, but the mayor blocked it.

While mayoral candidates have been asked to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on mayoral control, Gonzales said the discussion must go beyond that to creating “a vision for actual democratic governance of schools in New York City.”

Whoever becomes mayor in January, the debate about how — and maybe even whether — to achieve equity in city schools will continue. Along with coming back from the pandemic, “the number one education issue” for whoever takes office in January 2022 will be “to fulfil the promise that de Blasio broke and that’s mainly increasing diversity and desegregating schools,” Bloomfield said.

Kahlenberg agrees: “The next mayor will not be able to ignore segregation, as so many had in the past. Richard Carranza is a big reason for that.”

The question though is what, if anything, will the next mayor want to do about it? And will he or she — and their schools chancellor — succeed?

As the last years have shown, it will not be easy.

Gail Robinson is a former editor of Gotham Gazette who writes on education and other policy issues and teaches at Baruch College. On Twitter @GailNRobinson.

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