In Carranza, de Blasio finds a new schools chief cut from the same cloth as the one he’s replacing

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his search for a new schools chief, he outlined a primary goal: find someone like outgoing Chancellor Carmen Fariña.  

On Monday, de Blasio appeared to fulfill that mission. The mayor announced the next chancellor will be Richard Carranza — a man with a background, resume, and educational philosophy that look a lot like that of the city’s retiring schools chief.

They are both non-native English speakers, lifelong educators, and believers in the importance of visiting schools in order to understand whether students are learning. Carranza also appears to channel Fariña’s policy agenda, expressing support for bilingual education and infusing struggling schools with resources.

Even Fariña seemed overwhelmed by their similarities when Carranza was introduced publicly Monday.

“When you work really hard at something, you want to make sure you’re bequeathing what you you’ve done to someone who’s like-minded,” Fariña said. “And as I’ve had conversations with Richard over the last two days, we started to talk about our personal lives. I said, ‘Check. We’re similar.’”

Only a few days ago, it looked like New York City was headed in a different direction. The city’s first pick, Miami superintendent Alberto Carvalho — who dramatically rejected the mayor’s job offer on live television after privately accepting it — did not fit so neatly into Fariña’s mold. While he shared some of the mayor’s policy goals, he also attracted praise from some of City Hall’s education adversaries.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, for instance, expressed support for Carvalho, calling him a “top-tier educator” and an “excellent hire.” Her statement on Carranza, however, was much more muted.

“Congratulations to Chancellor Carranza,” Moskowitz said in a statement. “We look forward to showing you the 46 Success Academies that make up the highest-performing school district in the state.”

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, union officials were much more effusive about Carranza than Carvalho. Last week, United Federation of Teachers chief Michael Mulgrew said in a statement that he hoped Carvalho would build on the city’s progress under Fariña. Today, he offered specific praise for Carranza’s track record.

And Randi Weingarten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers, told Chalkbeat about Carranza, “He has a big, big heart and is a great educator.”

She also noted that he and Fariña are cut from the same cloth. “I’m not surprised that he would have a similar pedagogical focus as Carmen did,” Weingarten said. “Because these are the strategies of how you sustain and scale successful outcomes for children.”

De Blasio, a second-term mayor, made it clear from the start that he wanted a chancellor who would carry out his existing education agenda. His priorities include expanding pre-K to 3-year-olds; filling schools with medical and afterschool programs; and providing extra resources, such as Advanced Placement and computer science classes. Though the vision was solidified under Fariña, the next chancellor’s charge is to see these tasks through to fruition — and Carranza said on Monday he is up to the job.

“The equity agenda championed by our mayor is my equity agenda,” Carranza said. “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 City.”

Carranza’s history also suggests that he is largely in sync with de Blasio. In Houston, he worked to reduce suspensions, for instance, and launched a program that infused 32 struggling schools with additional wraparound services, akin to de Blasio’s own turnaround program.

And Carranza appears to share Fariña’s zeal for boosting teacher morale. After taking over from a more divisive leader in 2016, Carranza spent months holding community meetings to solicit input. According to multiple Houston school board members, the listening process made teachers feel more valued and fostered a cooperative relationship with the city’s teachers union.

“At the time, the morale was pretty low with teachers,” said Sergio Lira, one of the district’s elected board trustees. “He was very engaging, inclusive, positive.”

And like Fariña, critics have accused Carranza of moving so deliberately that students are shortchanged.

While some say Carranza has been willing to take on new policies including big changes to the city’s magnet programs and overhauling school funding schemes, many of those efforts have not yet gotten off the ground. And the ones that have, like his school turnaround program, are less than a year old.

He’s also leaving a district that is staring down a $115 million budget shortfall, could face state intervention due to the some of its schools’ poor academic performance, and is still reeling from Hurricane Harvey — which has left the union and some school board members unnerved by his departure’s timing.

“There was this big pit in my stomach because we have such massively important decisions happening right now,” Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Teachers Federation, told the Houston Chronicle. “Of all times to be without a leader I was thinking wow, this is not it.”

Carranza even shares Fariña’s preference for more centralized control of schools. Whereas her predecessors sought to give principals more freedom in exchange for strict accountability, Fariña shifted control back to district superintendents who are now tasked with overseeing schools.

In Houston, Carranza has also called for more central oversight. At Monday’s press conference, he gave a hypothetical example: It should be up to the school district, he said, to set overarching policies such as emphasizing social and emotional learning in schools. Then, he said, individual schools should have the freedom to choose their own partners, such as a particular nonprofit, to do that work.

“I tremendously have faith that principals can make great decisions at the local level,” he said. But he added, “There are some things you cannot decentralize. You need to have some central direction.”

And Fariña and Carranza can also find common ground in their skepticism about charter schools, the privately managed but publicly funded schools that operate outside of the local school system. The de Blasio administration has clashed with some high-profile charter school networks such as Success Academy, but it has has also expanded partnerships between district and charter schools across the city.

So, too, has Carranza pushed back against charter schools in some cases while opening the door to them in others. Last year, in an open letter to President Donald Trump, he argued that school choice had come at the expense of neighborhood schools, “even though,” he said, “these schools are the heart of our educational system and serve our most disadvantaged students.” But he also helped the KIPP charter network get its first high school in San Francisco off the ground, according to Steve Mancini, a network official.

“He found a facility that we’re very happy with and now [the school] is really thriving,” Mancini said. He called Carranza a “really good listener and very open to working with us.”

Given the obvious symmetry between Fariña and Carranza, among the questions de Blasio faced on Monday was why he hadn’t picked Carranza in the first place. The mayor deflected.  

“The bottom line is it was a very, very close call. I feel great about how things came together in the end,” he said. “We’re looking to the future.”

Fariña, who preaches the benefits of chancellors spending time in schools, beamed as Carranza described what he looks for when walking into a school: whether it’s clean, the quality of student work on the walls, how adults interact with each other. “A classroom just feels comfortable,” he said. “It feels like where I should be.” She piped in, “I just have to put a disclaimer: I did not rehearse him for that answer.”

“Carmen,” de Blasio said, “that is in the vein of great minds think alike.”