Education

Racial Bean-Counting in New York City Schools

(Pixabay)
The city’s education chief elevates racial politics over serving students.

Earlier this month, the New York Post obtained a copy of a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio signed by a bipartisan group of seven New York City councilmembers and two state-assembly members, accusing Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza of antagonizing students and parents who questioned him, prioritizing racial politics over “efficacy,” and employing cronyism in the hiring process.

These are serious charges for elected officials to level, and they come after three veteran Education Department administrators filed a lawsuit claiming that Carranza created a “hostile atmosphere” in the DOE, sidelining them in favor of less qualified candidates who happened to be people of color. The lawsuit alleges that Carranza’s team told white employees that “they had to take a step back and yield to colleagues of color” and “recognize that values of white culture were supremacist.”

Carranza at least had the good sense not to comment on the lawsuit. But the accusations of cronyism referenced in the letter provoked him into saying, “There are forces in this city that want me to be the good minority and be quiet and don’t say a word. Don’t bring the race issue up.”

It’s not exactly clear what Carranza’s being “a minority” has to do with the accusations against him. Two employees he knew from his stints in Texas and California were hired without the job openings being posted internally, longstanding DOE protocol that the chancellor’s office waived. The third, Abram Jimenez, worked with Carranza for a year in San Francisco and was vice president of education at the educational-software company Illuminate Inc. until his hiring to New York in 2018. The circumstances were fishy: Jimenez was given a marvelously opaque title, “Senior Executive Director of Continuous Improvement,” and hired at $205,416 a year. The job was new, but its creation was never publicly announced. Neither was Jimenez’s hiring.

Carranza is trying to deflect quite reasonable concerns about his hiring practices by alleging that he is the victim of racism. It’s a tactic he’s used before, as the letter mentions. In a public meeting where parents raised concerns about scrapping a standardized test used to determine admission to elite city high schools, Carranza responded by saying that “as a man of color, I’m going to call you on your language . . . The coded language that we use, where we’re ‘diluting’ these schools because we’re giving more opportunity to a wider array of students, is highly offensive.”

Talk about coded language — “giving more opportunity to a wider array of students” is a very nice way to portray deliberately lowering standards at top high schools, to the detriment of high-achieving public schools. In Carranza’s worldview, the mere fact that black and Latino students underperform on a test is proof that the test is racist. It’s the same stance he took as the superintendent of San Francisco’s public schools, when an accelerated program in algebra was scrapped because not enough minority students were qualifying for it.

This mindset, common in progressive educational circles, is very dangerous. Instead of dealing with the actual problem at hand — that certain groups of students are underperforming in certain areas — people like Carranza want to eliminate its markers. The idea that the real solution lies in improving the schools that turn out unprepared students is dismissed as ludicrous and potentially racist.

It would be easy to dismiss Carranza and his cronies’ racially charged attacks on opponents as cynical rhetorical ploys. Portraying adversaries as bigots is a cheap way to force complicated policy debates into a clear black-and-white (no pun intended) narrative. But the details from the lawsuit against the DOE belie pure cynicism as an adequate explanation. One “bias training” workshop called out “perfectionism” as a hallmark of “white culture” that harmed minorities. And in an employee meeting at the department’s Manhattan headquarters, Carranza declared that “If you draw a paycheck from DOE . . . get on board with my equity platform or leave.”

All this has led to the aforementioned letter, two of whose signatories sit on the city’s Education Council and therefore speak, at least in part, for New York’s powerful teachers’ unions. And while the backlash against Carranza is to be lauded, all the political sturm und drang gets in the way of actually helping students.

The mess surrounding Carranza is a perfect example of how foregrounding ideology, in this case highly racialized identity politics, results in shallow and harmful policy. Improving failing middle schools is less important than shoehorning students into a school they’re not qualified for. Hiring is based on ideology and therefore networks of cronyism, not competence. And having the correct racial mix of people working and making decisions in the DOE takes precedence over choosing hardworking, experienced administrators.

This is not a particularly conservative critique of Carranza; reasonable progressives can and should object to treating employees unfairly and using accusations of racism as a shield. But it should be a warning sign of how the extreme identity politics taught and practiced on college campuses can leak out and damage civic institutions.

Editor’s Note: This article originally identified Abram Jimenez as CEO of an education company. In fact he is a vice president.

James P. Sutton is an editorial intern at National Review and a junior at Swarthmore College.

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