by Mick Dumke
Juan Rangel understands how things work around here.
Just ten days ago the group he heads, the United Neighborhood Organization, the most powerful Hispanic group in Chicago, organized a rally at which thousands of people called on government officials to send more taxpayer funds to charter schools.
Yet Tuesday afternoon Rangel received rousing applause as he told a group of downtown professionals—most of them white—that the time has come for Hispanics to stop protesting and focus on improving themselves through assimilation, education, and political organizing.
“‘Let’s take the day off, let’s go march downtown, let’s have a big rally’—that’s easy,” he told a lunch gathering of the City Club of Chicago.
But instead of focusing on “victimization,” Rangel said, “we need to get back to the old political organizations that hustle, knock on doors, register people to vote, and get them out to vote on Election Day.”
Rangel is a bit of an expert on politics and assimilation, having guided UNO through the end of its transition from rabble-rousing community group to dear friend of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Last year he knew a winner when he saw one, becoming one of the first public figures to endorse Rahm Emanuel as Daley’s successor. Now he’s essentially a surrogate member of the Emanuel administration, serving on the Public Building Commission, which oversees school construction, and hosting mayoral pressers on education, where they highlight the school system's problems.
But somehow his City Club speech left out the part of how those “old political organizations” worked: they doled out government jobs in return for getting out the vote. They were called ward organizations, and when they worked together they were called the Democratic machine.
Things function a little differently in an age of smaller government.
Sure, UNO has its influential public-sector jobs. Rangel shared a lunch table with Richard Rodriguez, a graduate of UNO’s leadership institute who now serves as Rahm Emanuel’s environment commissioner after running the CTA for Rich Daley. A couple tables over was First Ward alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno, another UNO leadership trainee.
Still, UNO’s primary stake is in charter schools. UNO already runs nine charter campuses serving more than 5,400 students, many from low-income homes, and more campuses are on the way. Rangel touted the schools as vessels for “Americanizing” Hispanics—school days start with students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and instruction is in English—as well as national models for improving education, since, he said, they outperform many regular public schools.
“As magical as that experience is, there is no magic—just hard work,” Rangel said.
There is also $27 million a year in taxpayer money that the UNO charters subsist on, though, as Ben Joravsky and I have reported, they’ve resisted playing by the rules that regular public schools are subject to.
Rangel all but declared to the City Club that he doesn’t really think of them as public schools anyway. “Our schools in the neighborhoods do what the Catholic schools once did for the immigrant children of yesteryear—without the nuns and the rulers,” he said, drawing laughs.
In yesteryear, though, families paid tuition to put their kids through those Catholic schools. Now there is another way: increased public funding. Rangel stressed that the charters need more of it, especially to pay their teachers better.
“At some point CPS is going to have to step up if they see charters as a viable option and strategy for success, and step up in terms of the money that comes to charters,” Rangel said.
Incidentally, Rangel’s annual salary is around $266,000, which equates to more than two dozen ruler-bearing nuns in the old days.