The New Machine: Charter Schools

The New Machine: Charter Schools

By RA Monaco

Charter school operators aren’t the only one’s not being held accountable—a major complaint of the Chicago Teachers Union—it’s the machine politicians angling for electoral support and continued political power. 

The War on Independents Wages On

Battle lines were once again drawn between Chicago’s machine democrats and independent democrats when Ald. Toni Foulkes was remapped out of her Southside 15th Ward that changed from a majority of African Americans to 68.3 percent Hispanic.

There may be numerous candidates campaigning for the open 15th Ward aldermanic seat but there is certain to be one Latino candidate heavily back by Chicago’s machine politicians.

Independent democrat Ald. Ricardo Muñoz (22nd) has said that they don’t know who the 15th Ward machine candidate will be just yet, tacitly acknowledging that machine politicians will likely put up another young white-collar oriented Hispanic candidate indoctrinated with the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) Metropolitan Leadership Institute (MLI) brand.

Like the recently elected 21st District Rep. Silvana Tabares, the next recipient of UNO’s politically connected financial support will also enjoy boots on the ground from the parents and teachers of UNO’s charter school network.   Importantly, UNO currently maintains two charter schools in the redrawn 15th Ward which borders Ald. Ed Burke’s 14th Ward where they have six more schools.

Ald. Muñoz did say, in reference to independent democrats, “We have a friend, Rafael Yañez, Ed.D. who has filed” with the Illinois Board of Elections and who they intend to put up for the open 15th Ward aldermanic seat.

Bring the Voice of the Voiceless To the Center Is Our Goal

“The community should be involved” says Rafael Yañez.  In discussing his candidacy for the 15th Ward aldermanic seat, Yañez didn’t think that informing the community of decisions that had been made downtown without hearing the voices of the people that live there, has been healthy for the four communities that now comprise the 15th Ward.

“I feel that in many ways these communities have been neglected” said Rafael Yañez who recognizes that each community has different issues.   Yañez believes that his personal and professional experiences have given him a sense of how “really wounded” those communities are in the 15th Ward.  There are many factors beyond what we see in the news and the media, explained Yañez who said that “families are suffering.”

An experienced Chicago police officer, Rafael Yañez’s qualifications are worthy of mention which include ten years organizing community and police partnerships, developing and implementing violence reduction programs in the community and schools as a crime prevention specialist as well as having been a Chicago Public School and City College instructor.

In addition to having an established history in the community, Rafael Yañez’s education credentials include a Doctor of Education, Masters of Science in Public Safety Administration and a Bachelor of Science in Law Enforcement Management.

When pushed to consider his probable opposition from the political machine Rafael Yañez responded, “I think that the beauty of living in this country is [that] if someone feels that they can represent the 15th Ward, by all means they are welcome to be part of this process.”

Rafael Yanez“I can’t speculate on what their plans are, or what UNO’s plans are, or what the political machine’s plans are,” says Yañez.  “What I need to be focused on is, what am I going to be doing to improve the 15th Ward?”

Though the 15th Ward election may be a political battle front—having been redrawn downtown with a specific political agenda—Rafael Yañez explains his ground game is “bring the voice of the voiceless to the center is our goal.”  According to the aspiring candidate who has welcomed the challenge, restoring the 15th Ward begins with trying to open opportunities to create dialogue and to involve the community voice.

“I don’t come from a political family.  My experience doesn’t fall from any political experience.  I think that I come from the people and I am for the people,” says Rafael Yañez who expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the process of building bridges and restoring a neglected 15th Ward.

Not Much Has Change in the Ways of Machine Politics

In what promises to be a hotly contested election, one thing seems certain, the United Neighborhood Organization’s charter school group (UNO) will be a factor in the redrawn 15th Ward where the charter school network has two schools.

In recent years, machine democrats have consistently sought Hispanic candidates like Rep. Silvana Tabares from UNO’s Metropolitan Leadership Institute (MLI) to oppose independent democrats and UNO charter school parents have put their boots on the ground to support their candidates.

While some of the names have changed in Chicago, not much has change in the ways of machine politics since 1998 when Latino leaders loyal to Mayor Richard M Daley and an army of Latino patronage workers—organized by the then little-known Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO)—joined forces with white party bosses to unseat Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and bring out the vote for Antonio “Tony” Muñoz, a Chicago cop that hardly anyone in the First District had heard of from McKinley Park.

Today, the war on independents wages on only the new machine isn’t HDO, its UNO and their charter school group.

Schools Are Part of Building a Political Machine

“I think it is part of building a political machine on new grounds and that schools are very much part of that,” said Pauline Lipman, Ph.D.,  University of Illinois Professor of Education Policy Studies.  Prof. Lipman says that “Juan Rangel was instrumental in HDO under Daley” and thinks that there are different aspects to charter school policies.

PaulineLipmandThere is a huge market in charter school investment bonds explained Prof. Lipman and “UNO is drastically in debt—they’re in over their heads in debt.”    These bonds become financial instruments that are speculated—bought and sold—for speculative gain on the international financial markets.

“Any speculative industry requires growth—you’re borrowing on the promise that you’re going to grow so you’re going to take more money in” says Lipman and, in the case of UNO, for example, “that means they have to be tied into the political machine because they need that kind of connection so that they’re guaranteed they will get those schools.”

“I’ve been saying it’s not an education plan, it’s a business plan,” said Lipman “because there’s not education research to support it and there are business connections, so it’s both a business plan and a political plan.”

Before Charter Schools There Were Trucks

Remember the little red trucks at the end of the block—the one’s that cost taxpayers $40 million per year to do nothing?  They were the trucks managed by city employees with cool middle names like Nick “The Stick” Lo Coco and John “Quarters” Boyle—remember?  They were the idle trucks that got 44 people indicted—a federal prosecution list that read like the who’s who of political insiders from the Mayor Richard M Daley administration?

It was the Hired Truck Program whose idle trucks paved an investigative road for indictments all the way up to Chicago’s City Clerk James Laski and the former Mayor’s patronage chief Robert A. Sorich.Hired Truck

It was the program that allowed Mayor Daley to take in more than $100,000 from Hired Truck companies and which poured more than $800,000 into the campaign coffers of two governors, numerous state legislators and, don’t forget, Chicago alderman.

The list of political insiders who eventually went to jail included the Commissioner of Streets and Sanitation Angelo Torres—leader of Mayor Daley’s largest patronage army, the Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO).

The City privatized the moving of dirt which provided money for campaigns and HDO was deep into the scandals.  Now, ten years later, two of Daley’s leaders of the now-defunct HDO, state Rep. Edward Acevado and state Sen. Tony Muñoz are serving in the Illinois Legislature and the HDO patronage machine—like the little red truck on the corner—has become charter schools.

Once the jigsaw puzzle was assembled the Hired Truck Program turned out to be just another government privatization scheme crafted to circumvent and fuel machine patronage.  The result was corruption and waste—they called it a “program.”

This time the program is called UNOthe United Neighborhood Organization’s charter school group—and their leader is Juan Rangel.

UNO’s Politically Beholding Machine

In 2007, as the economy began to crumble and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan found himself unable to get the funding job done to save UNO’s already faltering charter school empire, Rangel reached out to 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke.

Using his clout as the City’s finance chair, Ald. Burke gathered LaSalle Street Lawyers, a few select bankers and his brother, state Rep. Daniel Burke, to put together a $65 million low-interest loan package guaranteed by City Hall to financially re-prime UNO’s politically beholding machine.

Then, on the heels of a global recession, the Illinois State Legislature really turned heads in 2009 and Madigan came through with a $98 million grant to UNO for school construction—possibly the nation’s largest investment in charter schools.

Fingerprints of an Inner Circle of Politicians

A year ago, when Sun-Times staff reporters Dan Mihalopoulos and Tim Novak blew the lid off the long list of political insiders whose hands had reached deep into UNO’s charter school group cookie jar, you’d have thought political heads were going to roll—not here in Chicago where politicians like Ald. Edward Burke have more lives than Felix the cat.

Willful blindness is never a defense—you either knew or should have known—that’s what a federal judge would tell you.  The exception is—unless you’re a Chicago politician.  Then, willful blindness becomes a perfect defense.

These days, Chicago is the most corrupt city in the country—“even more corrupt than New York” says former 44th Ward Alderman, corruption fighter and current University of Illinois, Political Science Department head Dick W. Simpson.  He estimates “that it will take a decade or two to eliminate corruption in Chicago” but that “it’s basically impossible as long as it’s a machine political party,” he explained.

In the last five years, UNO received an astonishing $280 million of public money to spend on education.  The fingerprints on that money belong to an inner circle of politicians who knew or should have known exactly what was going on—including, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, state Rep. Daniel Burke, Ald. Ed Burke and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan who sponsored a $98 million state grant.

“There is no doubt that some kind of audit should have caught that sooner than waiting for the news papers” said Prof. Simpson.

UNO’s Charter Schools and their CEO Juan Rangel didn’t flourish because of a “gaping loophole in the charter school system.” They weren’t engaging in blatant “political cronyism” because of lax oversight by the Illinois State Board of Education or Chicago Public Schools either—as suggested by Chicago Magazine reporter Cassie Walker Burke.  And, this isn’t a cautionary tale “about the intersection of ambition and opportunity.”  In fact, the real story isn’t even about UNO’s CEO Juan Rangel.

Angling for Continued Political Power

Someone yell “pensions” and the entire ordeal is forgotten.  The UNO story surprised no one really.  It’s just one more political scandal and then business as usual in the city of sagging shoulders.

Charter schools have become the new machine for Chicago politicians who’ve proven themselves poor stewards of public money over and again.  While starving public schools students and teachers of needed resources, politicians find money to line the pockets of corporations who fund their political campaigns under the ruse of educational choice.

The lax system of oversight exists because politicians want it that way.  The public doesn’t get to know whose pocket actually gets the charter money—that’s by design and charter schools have been around long enough for politicians to have fixed the system had they wanted.

“The trick with charter schools is that they’re really constructed as private schools using public money so that the amount of transparency that is available is not as great if you have a private operator,” explained Prof. Simpson.

In a recent report titled “Charter School Vulnerability to Waste, Fraud and Abuse,” focusing on crime, not just greed, the U.S. Department of Education warns that the “fraud and mismanagement that has been uncovered” in this poorly regulated industry thus far “might be just the tip of the iceberg.”  The report sets aside the plethora of troubling issues with these arguably out of control charter schools and warns of activity that could, in fact, be criminal.

Charter school operators aren’t the only one’s not being held accountable—a major complaint of the Chicago Teachers Union—it’s the machine politicians angling for electoral support and continued political power.

Why UNO Is the Chosen Recipient of Those Public Dollars

When taken together, circumstances make clear that UNO is the chosen recipient of all those public dollars because they do help the political machine get their candidates elected.  The 2012 election of state Rep. Silvana Tabares is a case on point.

At the outset, former Illinois House Rep. Susana Mendoza who resigned from her District 1 seat in 2011 to become city clerk told WBEZ reporter Chip Mitchell that Silvana Tabares was not qualified to fill her former seat.

Tabares, who had graduated from the UNO leadership academy MLI—a clout-heavy Latino group—the year prior, denied knowing anything about possibly replacing Mendoza deferring the WBEZ inquiry to Ald. Ed Burke and state Sen. Tony Muñoz.   As their 2012 election strategy unfolded, state Rep. Dan Burke was redistricted into the District 1 seat and Silvana Tabares slotted for the newly redrawn 21st District in the primary.

According to Carl Rosen, a former officer of Little Village’s 22nd Ward Independent Political Organization, Silvana Tabares had done nothing prior to being put up to face Rudy Lozano Jr. in the 21st District primary.   “She had no record of serving the community or of organizing the community” according to Rosen who went on to explain that she’d be totally beholding in Springfield to those who steered money into her campaign.

Drawing Up Maps to Choose Voters

Apparently, handpicked to challenge Lozano, Tabares won the primary by only 330 votes.   Lozano told WBEZ that he blames the narrow loss on a newly drawn district and unnamed Southwest Side regular Democrats who supported Tabares.

Rosen agreed, explaining that Lozano had won all of the Latino areas including the 12th Ward, 22nd Ward and Burke’s 14th Ward all of which are Latino wards but that he’d lost because of votes from Garfield Ridge and the southwest suburbs.  “It’s because Michael Madigan is brilliant at drawing up maps” claimed Rosen.

“This is the thing that you see complaints about” explained Rosen and “why the redistricting stuff has to change.”  As it stands now, politicians pick their voters not the other way around.

Preemptively, Michael Madigan’s recently filed lawsuit challenging the proposed constitutional reform clearly shows a willingness to invest in protecting redistricting practices and the status quo.  To be fair, Republicans engage in the same types of gerrymandering when they’re politically able.

Known as a reformer, 22nd Ward Ald. Ricardo Muñoz, one of the few independents on the City Council supports the proposed redistricting reforms.

What’s Important Is That the Money Showed Up

First, to stop Rudy Lozano from becoming a state representative, regular democrats—the machine—redrew districts to minimize Latino voting strength and then handpicked their candidate out of UNO—Silvana Tabares.

That’s when the UNO machine dropped into gear with UNO parents going door to door for Tabares asking for their vote and Juan Rangel publically telling WBEZ, “She would be, by far, the best candidate to fill the seat.”

What’s most revealing about the Tabares campaign is how the money showed up.  UNO school construction contractors—even some from out of state—contributed $31,050 to Tabares’ 2012 campaign.  Why does a construction contractor care about a candidate with zero experience unless they’re politically connected and more schools are on the drawing board?

Also filling her campaign coffers were a long list of UNO vendors as well as the expected insiders like Juan Rangel, Phillip J. Mullins and Miguel d’Escoto who, after his forced resignation—allegedly to protect the UNO organization—would later file a lawsuit against Juan Rangel.

Silvana Tabares had another strata of campaign contributors too—James S Crown and Paula H Crown.  James Crown is the director of defense industry behemoth General Dynamics who also owns ski resorts in Aspen, Colorado.  The Crown’s each personally contributed $5,000 to Tabares’ 2012 campaign.   Clearly, Tabares had elite political insiders with a purpose making introductions—how else does a young woman from the Southside of Chicago with zero clout warrant such financial support?

By far, Tabares’ single largest financial contribution--$51,322.00—came from the well heeled political action committee Stand for Children who pumped a total $1,002,418 into the Illinois 2012 election cycle.  Stand for Children is pushing reforms to implement  Common Core standards, school choice, including charter schools and selective enrollment schools as well as changes in how teachers are paid and evaluated.

Some would argue that all that money—$249,479.00 in total—showed a lot of confidence in the young inexperienced candidate Silvana Tabares.  More logically, it demonstrates the invisible hand of political heavy weights and their new machine—charter schools.

An Ethnic Patronage Machine

The Four of Them“Everybody knew that UNO was related to the HDO operations, so it was politically put together” explained Prof. Simpson.  From its inception, the UNO Charter School story was always about political power and the morphing of a deeply entrenched patronage machine that is knowingly courting the votes of parents and relatives of 44 percent of Chicago Public School students—Latinos.

Chicago has become the second largest urban concentration of Mexican residence in the United States and politicians are keenly aware of their viability as a political force.

The political patronage that defined Ward politics in the 1960’s, continues to thrive in Chicago and particularly the 14th Ward where the quid pro quo of Ald. Edward Burke’s fingerprints are all over UNO and the 6 Charter Schools that remain located in his Ward even after the 2012 Ward remap.

An Irish-American politician, Ald. Burke first came into power in 1969.  Amazingly, since 1971, he’s faced only a single electoral challenger in 2007—receiving 89.72 percent of all ballots cast.

Despite the demographic shift in the 14th Ward which, as far back as the 2000 census, was predominately a Latino district—now more than 75 percent Mexican—Burke maintains control through the strategic use of political patronage.  His hold on power is anything but a political conundrum.  In his more than three decades in Chicago politics Burke has consolidated enough clout to provide his constituents real benefits.

Patronage is nothing new in Chicago though the Shakman decree has forced the political machine to adapt.  Resources and jobs are often directly linked to aldermen who are both city legislators and an executive in their wards—whatever they say gets done.

In years past, Burke was able to gerrymander with the help of allies to continually shift the area that constituted the 14th Ward.  However, over the last decade Burke has worked aggressively and strategically to integrate Latinos into his 14th Ward machine.

A Power Struggle in the Latino Community

The Burke operation is very deliberate in its approach according to Carl Rosen, who gave this example as standard operations: “They find big families, you know, places where there might be eight or ten voters in a building because the family lives with the extended family.  And hopefully they’ve got relatives in the ward, too—so, maybe you’re impacting twenty or thirty votes—and [they] give a job to one of those people.  Then, everybody understands that in order to keep that job you’ve got to be supporting the alderman with votes.  So, it’s patronage.”

Dick Simpson_BorderHowever, there is currently a “power struggle in the Latino community” that is growing contentious according to Prof. Simpson.  “There’s been this constant struggle between what might be called the machine section of the Latino community—they were allied with the Daley and post Daley machine—and the reformers who are fighting the machine and are successful in gaining positions,” said Simpson.

Simpson explained that “under Richard M Daley, HDO got much stronger and for instance defeated Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Rudy Lozano Jr. and others.”

Reform-minded candidates like Rudy Lozano Jr., who challenged Rep. Daniel Burke for the 23rd State Representative District in 2010, exist outside the predominate political machinery.  They pride themselves on independent political organization.

While machine candidates, like Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and former UNO executive director Ald. Danny S. Solis (25th)—who is attributed with bringing UNO’s agenda into alignment with City Hall—are greater in number and more established, they work within the bounds of the existing political status quo.  They openly profess their loyalty to the political elite like Mayor Emmanuel and Ald. Ed Burke, though most Mexican members of the machine are relegated to the back-ground where they play “junior roles”—using the words of Dick Simpson.  In that capacity, they’re complicit in Chicago’s political machine.

“You can say that UNO and sort of the remnants of HDO is what defeated Rudy Lozano, Jr.” said Prof. Simpson.  Not surprising, UNO’s Juan Rangel supported Dan Burke for reelection which, for some, makes it difficult to buy into their mantra of Hispanic empowerment.

Enabling the Power Structure

On the surface Ald. Burke may be perceived to be advocating for the Latino community.  “He is good in delivering services to his constituents” says Prof. Simpson—most of whom are Hispanic.

On the other hand, “he’s not a leader in the Latino Community.  He isn’t pushing new causes in a highly visible way” says Prof. Simpson.  “I don’t see Ald. Burke doing that kind of push on society to open up more jobs for Hispanics or improve education or solve immigration or any of those kinds of broader policies beyond the needs of particular constituents” Simpson explained.

At the Ward level Burke doles out nickels and dimes but, looking through the wider lens, he’s enabling the power structure that is funneling money into downtown interests and corporate interests—the exact same people that are exploiting these people as workers.

Burke’s operation walks a racial tightrope where they permit Mexicans to participate in the operation though their involvement is artificially created as a subordinate racialized category which has made UNO’s charter schools very functional and transferable into ward politics.

Attacking Teachers Unions

Attacking teachers unions has been the centerpiece of Juan Rangel’s UNO pitch while calling “for an even more aggressive path and push toward systemic structural…reforms in public education.”

“Totally irresponsible and reckless” were the words Rangel chose to describe teachers unions.  It was a familiar theme for him to rip opponents of school reform while praising the work of wealthy charter school supporters like Rahm Emmanuel, Bruce Rauner and the Pritzker family.

“Never mind the children languishing in the mediocrity called public schools” he would say claiming that opponents were “acting in their own interests.”

An Industry Soaked in Justifiable Skepticism

Time has dispelled much of Juan Rangel’s impassioned claims as UNO’s Charter School network has hardly shown the academic successes that warrant such enormous expenditures.  In fact, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Medill Data Project at Northwestern University has found little evidence in standardized test results that charters are performing better than traditional schools operated by the Chicago Public School system.

Adding to the charter school skepticism is the overall lackluster performance records, expulsion and admission practices as well as the absence of transparency in its structural framework.

Prof. Pauline Lipman believes that the political push is, in part, to privatize and politically shun the overall responsibility for public education.

Building New Charter Schools Instead of Putting Money in Classrooms

From the outside looking in, the answer to the question of why build new charter school buildings in Chicago seems too UNO Schoolobvious.  New construction gave Rangel power to negotiate multi-million dollar contracts, create jobs particularly in the 14th Ward, dish money to his cronies, leave his mark on the community, and continue to elevate his status, create a larger public image and most importantly, promote those politicians who found the money.

Every new school hired security, maintenance workers, cafeteria workers, teachers, teacher’s aides and every one of them— including the parents of students—knew exactly who was finding the money for their job or kid’s classroom.

How irresponsible has it been for these politicians who could have been better stewards of the public’s money, putting it to work in the classrooms and helping teachers with much needed resources to improve education?  The public has been treated like simpletons.

Vetting For the Machine

Beyond the creation and management of city-based charter schools, one of the ways UNO Chief Juan Rangel has served the political machine is by vetting aspiring Latino leaders and indoctrinating them into machine politics and UNO’s brand of civic networking—ethic patronage.

Since 2001, Rangel has been grooming Latino men and women through the Metropolitan Leadership Institute (MLI)Over the course of a year, young white-collar oriented Latinos are indoctrinated into an organizational philosophy and UNO’s brand of community leadership through assigned readings and monthly lectures from a who’s who list of Illinois and Chicago politicians.

At the top of this list is of course Ald. Ed Burke, along with former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his daughter Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

In addition to Silvana Tabares, notable MLI program graduates include Ald. Proco Joe Moreno, Ald. Manny Flores, State Rep. and former CTA President Rich Rodriquez who currently serves as broad chairman of the UNO Charter School Network.

If the MLI program’s purpose is as Juan Rangel told Better Government Association reporters—to serve as a role model to train the next generation of Chicago’s Latino leaders—these graduates have gotten a front row education in leadership through nepotism, self-interest and political cronyism.

At this juncture, for Gov. Pat Quinn, Michael Madigan, Mayor Emmanuel, Ald. Burke and others it would seem that the success of the UNO charter school network and their more than 7500 students is less about educational choice than it is about business and votes.

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