Thursday, December 26, 2013

More on the complicated politics (racial and otherwise) of the education reform movement

Like NYC, Chicago has been in the forefront of the reform movement, particularly when it comes to replacing traditional schools with charters and, like most of the country, it has been the site of increased push back over the past couple of years from parents, teachers' groups and surprisingly aggressive journalists.

One target has been the United Neighborhood Organization and its executive director Juan Rangel. This piece by the Chicago Reader's Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky from back in 2012 nicely illustrates some points made previously about the way many reformers use racial politics:
The United Neighborhood Organization is the former Alinsky-styled community group that's built an empire of 11 charters and counting through what executive director Juan Rangel describes as years of "hard work."

What he doesn't stress quite as much is the political clout and connections UNO has cultivated with mayors Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel, as well as Governor Pat Quinn, to the tune of about $30 million a year in public funding. And counting.

As for the Reader, well, in our tongue-in-cheek political roundup to close out 2011, we honored Rangel, in a manner of speaking, with the Halliburton Award, given to the private contractor who quietly runs a wing of government.

To his credit Rangel hit us right back, posting a link to the piece on his Facebook page with his own snarky wisecrack: "I usually don't promote the rants of people who despise charter schools, who are knee-jerk UNO haters or who just plain loathe successful Hispanics, but this week's Chicago Reader made me LMAO.... Check it out! If you want a hard copy, you can find one in any gentrified neighborhood where Hispanics have been displaced."
To the credit of both Rangel and the journalists, they managed to arrange an interview and a tour of one of the chain's schools.
Another row of children—all wearing the UNO brand—obediently files down the hall.

"Look at these kids. There are people who say they can't stand in a straight line. We're here to say it's doable. [The accusation that critics of charter schools don't believe that minority kids can succeed is a common piece of movement rhetoric. The part about not being able to stand in a straight line is a new one on me. MP]

"White liberals, they think they know what's best for our community. This community has a lot of assets—it's family oriented, there's good housing here. But the schools are crappy."

And the schools are crappy, he says, because some people send the message that it's normal for Hispanic kids to fail. And most of those people are white liberals.

In fact, Rangel keeps bringing up white liberals until we ask who exactly he's talking about. What about his white liberal benefactors and supporters, such as Arne Duncan, school board member Penny Pritzker, state senator Heather Steans—and Rahm Emanuel?

Rangel doesn't say a word.

But Mayor Emanuel's a white liberal, isn't he?


Let's take it step by step. We all agree that he's white—right?

Nervous laughter.

OK, back to that tour . . .

As long as we're on the subject of Mayor Emanuel, we note that he seems to visit UNO schools a lot—using them as a backdrop when he holds a press conference to rip the regular public schools or the teachers union.

"I don't think that's a prop," says Rangel. "I don't have a problem when the mayor or others highlight us as example. We're very proud of that. People say we've sold out and all that, but we're still pushing the envelope. You can't say we're not out there. You can disagree with what we do, but you can't say we're not doing something."

In short, he's not apologizing for presenting UNO as the voice of Hispanics in Chicago. "When people say, 'How does UNO get a $98 million windfall in these tough budget times?' Well, that's for them to figure out."
I came across this interview because Rangel is back in the news due to another aspect of the reform debate, the way that the cozy relationships between the reform advocates in office and the advocates in business is raising concerns.

Dan Mihalopoulos off the Sun Times has generally taken lead on this part of the story:
Juan Rangel, longtime leader of the clout-heavy United Neighborhood Organization, is out as UNO’s $250,000-a-year chief executive in the wake of a scandal that cost the group millions in state funding and led to a federal investigation of its bond dealings. Rangel’s departure “by mutual agreement” with the board of the not-for-profit group that operates the largest charter school network in Illinois is effective immediately, UNO officials said Friday. Rangel had three family members on the UNO payroll. Sources said two of them quit recently, including Rangel’s nephew Carlos Jaramillo, UNO’s deputy chief of staff.

Rangel has close ties to politicians including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose 2011 campaign Rangel co-chaired, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), who sponsored a $98 million state school-construction grant to UNO in 2009. The state money — believed to be the largest government subsidy for charter schools in the country — fueled UNO’s rapid growth as a
charter operator. But the way UNO spent the money helped bring an end to Rangel’s rapid rise in Chicago politics.

Rangel’s top aide, Miguel d’Escoto, resigned in February, days after the Chicago Sun-Times reported UNO had given $8.5 million of business — paid for with the state grant — to companies owned by two of d’Escoto’s brothers. The revelation prompted Gov. Pat Quinn to suspend grant payments to UNO in April, which temporarily halted construction of a new UNO high school on the Southwest Side.

Rangel offered a public apology, saying he had “failed to exercise proper oversight.”

Quinn lifted the suspension, and work on the UNO Soccer Academy Charter High School resumed. But Quinn disclosed recently that he has suspended payments from the remaining $15 million after the federal Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating UNO over its bond dealings.

In September, the SEC’s enforcement division in Chicago told UNO the agency “is conducting an investigation . . . to determine if violations of the federal securities laws have occurred.” The SEC asked for documents related to $37.5 million the group borrowed from private investors, as well as records involving the state grant.

No comments:

Post a Comment