In the spirit of diplomacy—think Sadat going to Israel, Nixon to China, or Obama to Congress—the Reader recently paid a visit to an UNO charter school.

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.”

Touche, Mr. Rangel—you should be blogging for the Bleader.

Anyway, not long after, Rangel’s press secretary got in touch and invited us to visit their newest school and talk with Rangel in person.

And so on a recent weekday morning we drive down to a predominantly Hispanic southwest side neighborhood of bungalows—except for the mansionlike complex that 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke built behind a fence paid for with public funds. Burke, by the way, is another UNO ally.

The school, officially named the UNO Charter School Network Soccer Academy, is a gleaming modern building of steel and glass at 2916 W. 51st that truly stands out—it looks a bit like a space station that landed in a stretch of railroad yards and vacant industrial lots. UNO had it built last year with $27 million of a $98 million grant that Quinn awarded the organization for school construction.

In the front is a red, six-foot-high steel UNO logo, impossible to miss for anyone driving down 51st or flying above in a rocket to the moon. We’re greeted in the lobby by Rangel, a squat man with a soul patch who wears an impeccable suit. He’s accompanied by his press aide and Miguel d’Escoto, UNO’s senior vice president, who served as city transportation commissioner under Daley. They immediately take us on a tour that’s been given to numerous other reporters and columnists in town. Hey, better late than never.

Rangel starts by explaining that the school has a soccer theme—the classrooms are named after countries that play in the World Cup, and in addition to academics, the curriculum emphasizes sports and fitness.

But most of the students aren’t in classrooms just then—they’re on their way to or from gym or lunch. As we talk, groups of youth file past in neat lines, all wearing matching navy blue Adidas sweat suits with the UNO logo emblazoned on them.

Rangel stops at a window on the second floor overlooking a vacant lot to the north. He explains that by summer this will be the site of one of the largest soccer fields in the city. “We will have exclusive use during the day, but the public will be able to use it after hours,” he says. This is important for the whole community, he continues, because there’s a shortage of first-rate soccer fields in the public park system.

In short, having stepped in to take over duties once performed by the public schools, UNO is now moving in on the Chicago Park District. “We are filling the gaps,” Rangel says.

If it sounds like he’s telling us that these public institutions have failed the Hispanic community, that’s because he is: “They could do better.”

Put another way, UNO has essentially appointed itself spokesman for the Hispanic community. But who voted for Juan Rangel, anyway?

“People vote with their feet,” he says. “If parents don’t want their kids to come here, they don’t have to. Some people—white liberals—say, ‘We don’t want them wearing uniforms.’ Hey, let parents decide.”

He points to another vacant lot to the west of the school. That’s where they hope to build a high school, once they’ve purchased the land. Rangel explains that they could build it on the slice of UNO property right next to the Soccer Academy, but it would be too cramped for his taste. “We think big,” he says.

He tells us his decision to start building charter schools in Chicago stemmed from a conversation with former schools chief Arne Duncan, now the U.S. Secretary of Education. “I talked to Arne about getting a letter of support to move into the suburbs. Arne said, ‘Why don’t you build here?'”

The Soccer Academy now has about 580 students—about 32 per classroom. All together, more than 5,400 students are enrolled in UNO schools. Rangel admits that UNO pays teachers less than unionized teachers make in regular schools, but says that’s because charters aren’t getting enough taxpayer funding.

“We should pay them more,” he says.

As the tour continues through the emptying cafeteria, Rangel contends that UNO’s charter schools play a role once filled by Catholic schools. Kids wear uniforms, the school days are structured, and discipline is enforced.

In contrast, he repeatedly criticizes regular neighborhood schools, calling them “public schools,” as if UNO’s publicly funded schools weren’t part of the Chicago Public Schools. Yes, it’s as clear as it sounds: Rangel doesn’t want much to do with the public schools except their source of money.

Again and again he returns to a central theme: UNO understands what the Hispanic community wants. And he’s deft at making it seem as though criticism of UNO is thinly veiled criticism of the larger Hispanic community, as if the two are one and the same thing.

“I think people get our community wrong,” Rangel says. “It’s too easy to paint this whole community a certain way. I hate the term ‘people of color.’ This is a great community. This is not some permanent underclass.”

Moreover, he says one of UNO’s goals is assimilation. “We believe in English immersion. Most of our teachers are not even Hispanic. I understand the need for role models, but that’s not our primary goal. I’m going to have good teachers, no matter if they’re white, black, Hispanic, or what.”

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.

“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.”