Remember the scene at the beginning of “Men in Black” when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is auditioning men for a new slot in a secret agency that oversees alien visitors from other galaxies? After a series of bizarre tests, he picks the iconoclast in the group, soon-to-be Agent J (played by Will Smith). The rest of the candidates undergo a bogus eye exam that “neuralizes” or magically erases all memory. Audition over.
Wait, what audition? Exactly.
This scene reminds me of Mayor de Blasio’s most recent embarrassing moment last week when he presumptuously tweeted out that he had hired a new Schools Chancellor, Alberto Carvalho of Miami-Dade Public Schools, to replace Carmen Fariña. But then Carvalho changed his mind, or never intended to take the job at all and played de Blasio (and, possibly, Miami-Dade) like a mariachi fiddle, on live TV during a marathon school board meeting in Florida. The Mayor frantically flew out — at warp speed — his second choice, Richard Carranza of Houston Public Schools, to City Hall and (re)announced Farina’s successor. Zap goes the neuralizer!
Not so fast.
New Yorkers have strong memories and respond poorly to “neuralization.” Already media is abuzz with ignominious rumors about the new Chancellor, particularly his recently-revealed #MeToo moment where he allegedly “ruined the career of a female educator in San Francisco after she called him out for flirting with a female colleague.” Critics, of both the clandestine selection process as well as the choice itself are speaking out.
The question for parents and the 135,000 full-time employees of the NYC Department of Education is twofold. First, does Carranza have the skills necessary to manage the largest school system in the country? Second, can we overlook the tumult accompanying his hire and trust him to put the urgency of need among underserved students above his fealty to his boss, the Mayor?
The first question is hard to answer because the public was locked out of the selection and vetting process and has no way of assessing Carranza’s skill set. We know that for eighteen months he managed the school district of Houston and his management style was described as “careening down a hill at high speed toward an unknown destination.” The Houston Chronicle says “Carranza leaves behind the chaos of unfinished work. He inherited a tumultuous situation and fed the flames.” At San Francisco Unified School District, where Carranza spent four years, 88 percent of African-American students failed to reach proficiency in math last year and the NAACP declared the district in a “state of emergency.”
Not much of a track record for confronting New York City’s profound challenges. The Mayor’s signature educational initiative, the Renewal School Program has produced scant, if any, improvements, despite a running tab of $582 million. Four years ago Mayor de Blasio pledged to diversify the City’s intensely-segregated school system, where student demographics are 70 percent Black and Hispanic. This week letters went out to students applying to selective magnet schools: 4.1 percent of acceptances went to Black students and 6.3 percent went to Hispanic students. The Administration’s resistance to school choice expansion is unabated, despite enormous demand from families. Student outcomes reveal large achievement gaps. Teacher union leaders, whose labor-centric interests don’t typically align with student needs, manipulate de Blasio like a marionette.
Look, it’s New York, top of the heap and all that. More seasoned chancellors have shrivelled in its glare. But maybe Carranza will grow into this job, although his statement that “there is no daylight between Mayor de Blasio and myself” is worrisome.
What about trust, which is, as they say, hard to win and easy to lose? The burden for repairing that rift is squarely on both the Mayor, who chose Carranza, and Carranza himself, who accepted the offer. NYC parents are a tough crowd. Mona Davids of the NYC Parents Union said, “it’s alarming to me as a parent and as a woman that de Blasio would select Carranza. He’s a poor choice for chancellor.”
Chancellor Fariña, despite her strengths, was unable to move the needle, perhaps hampered by the Mayor’s agenda or by her own limitations. Can Carranza improve the equity and outcomes of NYC schools? He’ll zap his own chances for success unless he quickly proves his mettle, given the chatter about his past. And one final piece of advice to the new Chancellor: New Yorkers’ cogency—especially regarding the desperate educational needs of children—is immune to neuralizers. There are no second chances.