DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT CHEMISTRY?:  Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, pictured here with Mayor de Blasio at a press conference unveiling a plan to expand social-emotional learning in city schools, sometimes speaks as if the bond between the two men is a bulwark against criticism. But incendiary comments made by him and, allegedly, both his top aides and outside consultants, have stymied the Mayor’s efforts to achieve changes through legislation in Albany. 

Mayor de Blasio, dropping back into town June 17 after spending the weekend on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, was well into his weekly segment on “Inside City Hall” when Errol Louis said to him, “A group of City Council Members and the New York Post editorial board all seem—well, they have been calling on you basically to fire your Chancellor. What seems to bother them the most is his blunt talk about change and the diversity initiatives and the desegregation efforts.”

What Mr. Louis called “blunt talk” by Richard Carranza, a group of nine elected officials—seven Democrats, two Republicans, all moderate-to-conservative on the political spectrum—had labeled “divisive” in an open letter to the Mayor that appeared in the previous day’s Post. Referring to comments allegedly made by outside consultants brought in by the Chancellor to implement an “implicit-bias” curriculum to train school staff, the letter went on to state that “putting department staff in a position where they are made to feel uncomfortable because of their ethnicity is reprehensible.”

The NY1 political anchor asked the Mayor where he thought the backlash was coming from “and whether or not it’s intended to scare off officials maybe in the next administration from continuing what you have started.”

Viable Alternative to Scrapping SHSAT?

At the time Mr. Louis asked that question, Mr. de Blasio was looking at a legislative session in Albany rapidly drawing to a close with no action on a bill sought by him and Mr. Carranza to abolish the Specialized High School Admissions Test.

A bill with a far-greater chance of advancing next year had been introduced June 14 by State Sen. Leroy Comrie—which legislators in both the Senate and Assembly said had been produced too late in the session to get serious consideration this time—that would address some key concerns expressed by critics of the SHSAT. It would expand the number of specialized high schools citywide from eight to 18, provide free test-prep for the school year that begins in September 2020 to all sixth- and seventh-graders, and furnish them with a test-preparation guide and require every school district in the city to offer at least one gifted-and-talented program for students beginning in kindergarten.

But Mr. de Blasio, with a chance to mend some fences and grab a piece of an eventual solution, opted to instead raise the rhetoric to a boil, telling his host, “It’s irresponsible and all the folks who signed that letter should be ashamed of themselves. Here is a guy who is a fantastic educator, who is telling a truth that needs to be told about inequity in our school system, and the fact that we have a long way to go and he’s trying to do something about it…And look, you know, it does not surprise me if a particular newspaper goes after him. They don’t like people who try and change the status quo. But the Council Members should have known better, and that’s not the way to handle it. And Richard Carranza is not going anywhere.”

Actually, the authors of the letter—who included two Democratic Assemblymen in addition to the seven Council Members—hadn’t called for Mr. Carranza’s firing—yet. Its last line stated, “At this time, we the undersigned believe that if Chancellor Carranza continues to divide this city, then someone who can unite this city and provide a quality education for all should replace him.”

But the Mayor was in full mobilization mode, and the following day, 10 Council Members took part in a rally at City Hall on Mr. Carranza’s behalf. A counter-letter to the one critical of him was produced with the signatures of 23 members—a relatively underwhelming response given that 48 of the 51 Council Members are Democrats.

Mr. de Blasio seemed eager to do battle on the subject if the primary media outlet for the stories critical of the Chancellor was The Post. The New York Times in its coverage of the controversy has tiptoed around Mr. Carranza’s racially charged comments, and some even-more-inflammatory ones allegedly made by consultants connected to his $23-million anti-bias initiative. One staffer at the paper during a private conversation said he believed it had made a “demographic decision” not to wade too deeply into that aspect of the battle, alluding to The Times’s sensitivity to being perceived as on the wrong end of a discussion about remedying racial disparities.

Billionaire-Bashing Bill

That might explain why the paper’s editorial writers gave no attention to the Mayor resorting to class warfare to dismiss a campaign aimed at preserving the SHSAT while leveling the playing field for black and Latino students taking the exam that is being bankrolled by Ron Lauder, a white Jewish heir to a cosmetics fortune, and Richard Parsons, a former chairman of Citigroup who is one of the nation’s most-prominent black businessmen.

After Mr. Parsons told Times education reporter Eliza Shapiro in late April, “Greater diversity in our schools is an imperative, but the battle cannot be won simply by lowering standards,” the Mayor responded by saying, “The billionaire class is going all out to keep the status quo, and deprive black and Hispanic kids of their shot at the city’s specialized high schools. It’s a disgusting misuse of money and power, and we’re going to fight it.”

So much for elevating the dialogue in search of common ground. He had to be particularly agitated that the public face of the Education Equity Campaign funded by Mr. Lauder and Mr. Parsons that helped block his effort in Albany to eliminate the SHSAT was that of Kirsten John Foy. He’s a graduate of Brooklyn Tech who was a key aide during Mr. de Blasio’s days as Public Advocate and is a longtime ally of the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Mr. Foy is among those who have argued that the focus on the declining number of black and Latino students admitted to Tech, Stuyvesant High and the Bronx High School of Science is overshadowing the problems in the school system as a whole, particularly the middle schools from which students seek to get into the elite schools via the SHSAT. The Mayor was no doubt stung by his former subordinate’s assessment of his plan in which he told Ms. Shapiro, “Do not miss this opportunity by taking the path of least resistance.”

Mr. Carranza has lit into parents who he felt placed their own selfish concerns above the matter of improving the admission numbers for black and Latino students, once re-tweeting a comment on an Upper West Side battle that stated, “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

The Rebel Within

He said early on that he was willing to act as a “provocateur” on behalf of those youngsters. But some of his more-dissonant comments have been counterproductive, both legislatively and in the larger world of the city, raising questions about whether someone throwing verbal bombs from the very top of the system isn’t risking self-immolation.

In early spring, he lambasted the 1971 state law requiring the use of the SHSAT for Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science, declaring, “There’s no other reason for that law except to stop the integration of those three schools.” It’s a telling sign of Mr. Carranza’s myopia that he is oblivious to the positive impact the test has had on Asian applicants—in many cases students whose families are far from wealthy but have stretched their budgets to pay for test-prep as the best opportunity their children will have at securing a better life economically.

Mr. de Blasio’s own, belated apology for not realizing the way in which his attempt to bum-rush the SHSAT out of existence would arouse portions of that community, coming from a man who vowed to dedicate his second term to making New York “the fairest big city in America,” was, to put it politely, hard to digest.

Neither man has been helped by remarks attributed to, and written pronouncements put forth by, consultants the Chancellor has retained for the professed purpose of breaking down implicit bias.

In February, a group called the Center for Racial Justice that received $400,000 from the Department of Education, according to The Post, unveiled a “racial-advantage hierarchy” for a group of parents from the Upper West Side and Harlem that made the case that whites were at the top of the chain, with blacks on the bottom. When an Asian parent asked why her group wasn’t listed, she told The Post that the presenters responded that Asians “benefitted from white supremacy” and “proximity to white privilege.” If her account is accurate, it’s the kind of negative advertising that can’t be bought, except that DOE apparently paid twice. The notion of overcoming cultural insensitivity with a different brand of it stems from the same mentality that during the Vietnam War led one officer to declare, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

But Enough About You

One anonymous Jewish educator said that when she was invited to explain what in her life had prompted her to push for racial justice and responded that it was her grandparents being Holocaust survivors, she was criticized for making the dialogue about “being Jewish.” The thinking behind that kind of response seems to be that your experience has validity only if you are a member of the group that is at a disadvantage in this particular situation. It is an attitude consistent with what three veteran female executives who were demoted in the early months of Mr. Carranza’s tenure said was expressed to them by top aides whom he imported.

Some of those who complained about training that centered on “interrogating whiteness” said it made them feel like their being Caucasian carried a stigma. Mr. Carranza’s response was that those who are made so uncomfortable by the training that they said it had a negative effect were “the ones that need to reflect even harder upon what they believe.”

Funny, then, that the criticism he has absorbed in recent weeks does not seem to have made him introspective. Asked during a June 10 press conference concerning his attempts to better integrate the schools why he had become a magnet for criticism, he replied, “There are forces in this city that want me to be the good minority and be quiet and don’t say a word.”

He claimed it was no coincidence that minority Chancellors were those most likely to come under fire for decisions on policy and appointments to top positions, saying that in the latter situation, “And I also want to make very clear, is it any wonder that those individuals who have been criticized are men and women of color?”

If he wasn’t making up his material as he went along, his comments reflected a stunning ignorance of the school system’s history over the past quarter-century. Certainly Dennis Walcott, Michael Bloomberg’s last of three Chancellors and the only one who wasn’t white, was not singled out for harsh treatment. It could be argued that replacing the disastrous Cathie Black after she stumbled through five months in the job worked to his benefit: his steadiness in the position got more attention than the relative lack of student progress during Mr. Bloomberg’s final 32 months in office with Mr. Walcott at the helm.

Sympathy for Rudy’s Victims

Mayor Rudy Giuliani inherited Ramon Cortines as Chancellor after his allies at the old Board of Education succeeded in getting him appointed over a candidate preferred by then-Mayor David Dinkins. But in Mr. Giuliani’s mind, Mr. Cortines committed an unforgivable betrayal in the heat of the 1993 mayoral campaign when he encountered the incumbent at City Hall, cried, “My Mayor!” and embraced Mr. Dinkins.

Once in office, Mr. Giuliani bullied Mr. Cortines into eventually leaving the system; in that case, a Latino Chancellor was viewed with sympathy, while the Mayor’s conduct in their dealings helped give resonance to a book written by ex-Mayor Ed Koch about the man he had endorsed in 1993 entitled, “Giuliani, Nasty Man.”

Rudy Crew, who succeeded Mr. Cortines, for four years was a popular Chancellor whose most-notable innovation was creation of a special district under his supervision that focused on salvaging failing schools. His friendship with Mr. Giuliani, which included the two men spending time together indulging in their mutual enjoyment of cigars, was a source of some wonder, but it came to a crashing halt when the Mayor, getting ready to run for the U.S. Senate in 2000, began talking up the use of private-school vouchers and Mr. Crew angrily responded that he was undercutting the public-school system that both of them had taken oaths to improve. Before 1999 ended—with the Mayor’s Senate run fizzling out the following spring—Mr. Crew had departed, well-regarded by everyone but his boss.

The only one of Mr. Giuliani’s three Chancellors who was treated roughly by the media was the white one who followed Mr. Crew, the late Harold Levy. The Post, as part of its eternal feud with the United Federation of Teachers, tagged Mr. Levy as a captive of the union. Mr. Giuliani may have had a primary role in giving the paper’s editors that impression; the joke was that in Mr. Levy’s case the Mayor had waived his usual six-month waiting period before trying to rip out his Chancellor’s eyeballs.

Is He Up to Job?

So it’s clear how much Mr. Carranza doesn’t know when it comes to how Chancellors of color have been treated over the years. What is less clear is what he does know about improving a school system.

He came here from Houston after Mr. de Blasio’s initial choice to replace Carmen Fariña, Alberto Carvalho, reconsidered and opted to remain in his post as Superintendent of the Miami-Dade School District. Houston has 214,000 students, slightly less than one-fifth the number in the city public schools. Mr. Carranza’s previous job as San Francisco School Superintendent had him presiding over a system with roughly 60,000 students. Judging by his performance here, he didn’t learn much about navigating the political process with anything resembling diplomacy in his two previous jobs.

It would seem that the last thing Mr. de Blasio would want if his run for President were serious, rather than a vanity production, would be having to answer questions about an explosive racial controversy as he approached his first Democratic primary debate June 26. It’s conceivable he believes that, just as Donald Trump exploited such controversies to appeal to base voters on the right of the spectrum, he could do so among voters who lean left. But the nature of the Democratic electorate is different, and Mr. de Blasio, while a better human being than Mr. Trump, does not have his showman’s gift for firing up crowds and having their enthusiasm spread.

So it may be time for the Mayor to evaluate something Mr. Carranza said when he took the job more than 15 months ago—”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”—and ask himself whether, even if that’s true, he can afford to have a Chancellor with a knack for fanning political bonfires into four-alarm blazes.

It’s possible the Mayor takes solace in the bill produced in the closing days of the legislative session by Senator Comrie that offers a comprehensive program for bringing changes in the makeup of the students attending the city’s elite schools. If that becomes reality a year from now, it wouldn’t be the first time Mr. de Blasio put himself in an untenable spot and wound up claiming credit for orchestrating something notable.

The Pre-K Precedent

He began his tenure in 2014 pushing for a tax on millionaires as a vehicle for generating $5 billion to create universal all-day kindergarten and resisted a proposal from Governor Cuomo—who shared state legislators’ reluctance to raise any taxes in a year in which all of them were up for re-election—to have the state fund a slightly-less-expensive program.

He antagonized the Governor enough to get paid back in the form of a commitment by Albany to have the city assist charter schools in finding space—and pay for it—in cases where the Mayor insisted they could not be accommodated in public-school buildings. But when the state made good on its pledge to fund the pre-k expansion, the Mayor noted it provided more than $3 billion—twice what Mr. Cuomo initially offered a couple of months earlier when Mr. de Blasio insisted on pushing ahead with his tax on the wealthy.

This time, however, he will have lost a year in his attempts to substantially improve education at a time when his term is winding down and the fruits of those positive changes are unlikely to have ripened by the end of his term on Dec. 31, 2021. In the process, he has alienated the city’s fastest-growing racial group while engaging in a cynical power play that was at odds with the mission he proclaimed would consume his second term.

And to the extent that the Chancellor was correct in his early assessment that there was “no daylight” between him and the Mayor when it came to “what we believe in” regarding how children should be educated, in recent weeks that has not seemed like something Mr. de Blasio would want marked down as part of his legacy.

Those who argue that the battle over how students are chosen for the specialized schools is a “red herring” have a point. A large part of the reason the competition is so fierce and the test-prep industry has grown to such lengths is that even in middle-class neighborhoods of the city, there is no longer the assurance that district schools minus the prestige of a Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech will provide a quality education that prepares the majority of their students to move on to college without being overwhelmed.

New Setup, Old Problems

The problems of the old system featuring infighting at the Board of Education and at the 32 community school boards were supposed to be remedied when the Legislature approved a bill in 2002 establishing mayoral control of the public schools. But Mr. Bloomberg, intent on making his own imprint on the system and believing it would be easiest to do it without a proven educator who might object to some of his prescriptions, chose first a lawyer and then a publishing executive as his first two Chancellors, and seemed thunderstruck when a tightening of state testing standards in 2010 showed that the progress reported under the ex-litigator, Joel Klein, had been largely illusory.

Mr. de Blasio was supposed to have learned from his predecessor’s mistakes. Instead, he seems to have replaced Mr. Bloomberg’s belief in corporate management principles with another form of ideology that produces lively political theatre at the expense of quality education.

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