When Mayor Bill de Blasio explained what he was looking for in a new schools chief, he offered one primary goal: Find someone in the mold of outgoing Chancellor Carmen Fariña.
So when the mayor settled on Richard Carranza — a man with a background, resume, and educational philosophy that look a lot like Fariña’s — it seemed he had found her mirror image.
But Carranza has already shown his approach to running the nation’s largest school system will not simply reprise his predecessor, who spent a half-century working in the system, rarely spoke publicly about its flaws, and preferred to avoid the spotlight.
Carranza has shown he isn’t afraid to elevate problems that his predecessor rarely addressed publicly: lack of diversity at the city’s elite specialized high schools, broad patterns of academic segregation — even the quality of the school system’s food.
In his first month on the job, the new chancellor offered a blunt assessment of the mayor’s high-profile and expensive turnaround program, telling Chalkbeat it doesn’t have a clear “theory of action.” And, most notably, he inserted himself in the white-hot politics of school segregation, pushing back against some parents who don’t support a plan to increase academic diversity at middle schools on the Upper West Side.
“His status as an outsider grants him some license to say things that someone who lived in the system as long as Carmen did had not chosen to,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “I don’t think he’s burning any bridges by doing so — yet.”
Unsurprisingly, Carranza has spent much of his first weeks making it clear there’s “no daylight” philosophically between his views and de Blasio’s education agenda. His first school visit, a Bronx elementary school, centered on de Blasio’s expansion of free pre-K — by far the mayor’s most celebrated education accomplishment. In his opening speech to teachers, Carranza said he still considers himself to be one of them at heart — a clear nod to Fariña, who frequently emphasized her teaching roots.
And much like his predecessor, Carranza often references his modest upbringing when speaking with parents and students, including his experience as a non-native speaker. The son of a sheet-metal worker and hairdresser who spoke Spanish at home, Carranza learned English in public school.
That message has resonated with some parents, whom Carranza has made a point of meeting as part of his inaugural “listening tour.”
“It just makes you feel as a person that he can understand what your needs are because he seems to have come from similar background,” said Clemence Williams, a parent who attended one of Carranza’s recent town hall meetings in Queens, which began with an impromptu mariachi performance. “He feels very approachable.”
But in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the new chancellor has already departed from Fariña’s worldview. While Carranza has vowed to keep up Fariña’s regimen of frequent school visits, which became legendary for her detailed feedback on everything from hallway decorations to teaching strategies, Carranza prefers to hang back and listen.
When he does speak, it’s often a question to understand a new piece of the massive system he now oversees. On a recent visit to M.S. 137 in Queens, an assistant principal eagerly explained that the school had expanded the number of students who were each given an iPad for schoolwork. Carranza followed up with a question about whether school had bandwidth issues — and the assistant principal acknowledged they had.
“Everywhere I go where there’s technology I ask a question about bandwidth,” Carranza explained.
Those differences aren’t just about temperament: They signal a shift in management styles.
Fariña believed in improving the system by identifying best practices at individual schools and replicating them, which supporters pointed to as its own type of innovation. But critics said she was too content with small-bore programs and modest changes — and that she missed the forest for the trees. Perhaps picking up on that criticism, Carranza has said he wants to take a wider lens, tackling systemwide challenges with “urgency.”
“He seems to be more concerned about the overall system,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union. “The missing piece here is still the management of systems.”
In the process of raising questions about the system at large, Carranza has won praise from advocates frustrated with the administration’s approach to school diversity, who have argued the city has not been aggressive enough to integrate one of the most segregated school systems in the country.
Unlike Fariña and the mayor, Carranza routinely uses the words “segregation” and “integration” and appears comfortable criticizing a constituency the administration has been careful not to alienate: affluent white parents.
Last week, Carranza dove head first into a debate playing out on the Upper West Side, tweeting out a headline critical of “wealthy white Manhattan parents” who are resistant to a plan requiring the neighborhood’s middle schools to admit a certain proportion of students with low test scores.
“The criticism of my predecessor Chancellor Fariña was that she didn’t do anything about this,” Carranza said. “And here I am in my first month actually engaging in this conversation.”
Matt Gonzales, who heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said Carranza’s rhetoric has been a welcome surprise.
“This is what the leader of the largest urban school district in the country should be talking about,” he said. “That tweet activated a lot of parents of color I work with.”
But despite Carranza’s promise that he will not “be so busy keeping my job that I’m not going to do my job” and challenge the mayor, it’s unclear whether acknowledging broader problems like school segregation will translate into significant shifts in policy — or even what those shifts could look like.
In Houston, where he was superintendent before taking the job in New York, he showed some willingness to propose systemic and controversial changes, including an overhaul of the district’s magnet programs and school budget allocations.
Still, Carranza left that district before many of those proposals took effect, and in New York, he will have to persuade de Blasio — a mayor who has not previously worked with a schools chancellor who has publicly pushed him on policy issues.
“I’m obviously not getting my hopes up for everything to transform overnight,” Gonzales said. “I’m excited about where this is going to go.”