Richard Carranza has been New York City’s schools chancellor for five months now, long enough for a picture to emerge of a city official obsessed with ethnicity, yet indifferent to academic performance. Worse, he seems oblivious to the dangers embedded in racialized public-education policies—as does the man who hired him, Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Carranza made it clear before he arrived that his principal interest is ethnic equilibrium in the nation’s largest public school system, not achieving positive, across-the-board performance outcomes. The system has some bright spots—they’re moving center stage as the chancellor’s obsession with “integration” unfolds—but New York’s schools in general are a mess. As recently as two years ago, 420 of the city’s 525 high schools had prepared fewer than half of their graduates for college or a career.
Because no single shortcoming dominates here, no quick fix is possible. Neither de Blasio, who is in charge of the system, nor the de facto commander of the classrooms, United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, seems to care much. At the same time, neither wants to be known as the custodian of an epically failing institution. They needed someone to take the heat. Enter Carranza, a career educator with a mediocre reputation but a strong rhetorical commitment to racial and ethnic “balance.” He came to New York in April, after not making a difference in brief stints leading under-performing public schools in Houston and San Francisco. And he had scarcely unpacked his briefcase before doubling down on skin color, while making no fuss whatsoever about the generally lousy schools in his adopted city.
Carranza embraced the popular notion that New York City’s public schools are the nation’s most segregated, an often-repeated and tendentious point. New York’s student population is 66 percent black and Hispanic, 15 percent white, 16 percent Asian, and about 3 percent “two or more races,” and it’s difficult to understand how one “integrates” a system with that mix. Racial imbalance in the schools is a fraught issue, given America’s long and shameful history of explicit, legally mandated classroom segregation. However, de jure school segregation ended by 1920 in New York City, and more than a half-century ago across America. Demographic disparity today largely reflects poverty patterns, housing choices, and private-school options open largely to the affluent. It’s a matter that demands attention, but attempts to engineer an idealized racial balance have historically meant imposing levels of political and governmental coercion that most Americans find unacceptable, and these efforts generally have failed anyway—sometimes explosively.
Nevertheless, Carranza’s giving it one more try. He laid out his operating philosophy during a town hall meeting in Harlem in June. “It’s important that we put the real issue on the table,” he announced, “and the issue on the table is this. In one of the most diverse cities in not America but the world, and in the largest school district in America, a school district that is public, are opportunities really open for all people?” But if a public school system is failing, is the preferred solution to raise performance standards across the board, enforce them in the face of bureaucratic and teachers’ union blowback, and thus generally improve outcomes? Or is it better to weaken standards—functionally, to abandon them—in order “to open opportunities for all people?” Higher standards will produce unequal outcomes; no standards will teach students nothing worth knowing in a modern economy. Yet this fact seems lost on Carranza, who has in his sights the city’s competitive-entry schools and programs—including high schools like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant in Manhattan and the so-called gifted-and-talented initiatives for elementary and middle schools. Selective-entry schools tend to outperform system-wide averages, but they rarely reflect the city’s racial and ethnic enrollment averages. Thus, they command Carranza’s critical attention.
While the selective high schools have been a point of pride in the city for decades, the gifted-and-talented programs are a relatively recent arrival. And they exist for a reason. “The concern in the ‘80s and ‘90s in New York City was that the middle class would flee because they won’t sacrifice their kids’ education to some counterproductive ‘ideal,’” explains a reformer with almost two decades of experience with the city’s schools. “This led to these admission criteria in the first place. Rest assured, there will be pushback,” the reformer adds, if Carranza moves to end selective admissions.
In fact, the pushback has begun. A ham-fisted scheme now under consideration to “diversify” 14 high-performing, racially out-of-balance middle schools in Brooklyn’s affluent Park Slope seems almost designed to provoke backlash. The plan would admit pupils via a lottery but set aside 52 percent of classroom seats for poor and homeless children and non-native-English speakers. Resistance, to put it mildly, has been substantial.
There is an alternative: the hard, often volatile work of sorting through the dysfunctionalities and institutional resistance to accountability that produce failed schools in the first place. But this approach has no place in Richard Carranza’s toolbox, or Bill de Blasio’s. It’s easier—and, to progressives, more soul-satisfying—to blame “segregation,” and leave it at that. As always, kids will pay the price.
Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office