There wasn't much sweet talk this time.
When he spoke to the City Club a year ago, Juan Rangel cheerfully explained that his organization, UNO, the biggest charter school operator in the state, aims to help Hispanics improve themselves through hard work, assimilation, education, and political organizing, just like the Irish and Polish before them. He was received with rousing applause.
But when he appeared before the professional group again on Wednesday, it was to ask for their support in a war with "totally irresponsible and reckless" teachers unions.
He won rousing applause again.
Everyone in the room was well aware that hours earlier the Chicago Teachers Union had given notice that it might strike in ten days. No one had to ask what Rangel thought of it. UNO has been airing radio ads informing parents that its non-unionized teachers won't strike, just in case anybody's thinking of switching schools.
"For adults to even consider opening school next Tuesday for hundreds of thousands of children, children who are eager to begin their school year ready to learn after a long summer break, only to have the adults pull the rug from underneath them by closing down their school a week later, is totally irresponsible and reckless behavior," Rangel told the City Club. "We should expect more from adults, and certainly should expect more from the educators of our youth."
He was just getting warmed up.
Rangel—a close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel—ripped opponents of school reform efforts, saying they're acting in their own interest, "never mind the children languishing in the mediocrity called a public school." He noted that some critics want to eliminate charter schools altogether, "never mind that they have outperformed most of their neighborhood counterparts."
And he praised the work of wealthy charter school supporters—and mayoral allies—like Bruce Rauner and the Pritzker family. "Do we have the resolve to embrace Chicago's wealthy community . . . and support them as a focal source of energy that fuels the school reform movement with their money? Or will we shy away from them and allow the silly talk that currently passes for debate about the so-called one-percenters privatizing our schools?"
When it came time for questions, no one in the audience challenged any of these points, though they could have.
UNO will soon open its 12th and 13th charter schools; together their campuses now have more than 7,000 students. Though charters are technically public schools and UNO's are funded almost entirely by tax dollars, Rangel prefers to think of them as private entities in the mold of Catholic parish schools.
Charters may be viewed by many as another option for reaching urban children, but data show they're not consistently outperforming regular public schools.
And needless to say, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of education policy being shaped by people with the means and political connections to launch their own "public" schools.
Rangel couldn't be accused of mincing words. "The question to all of us is whether we have the continued will and the appetite for an even more aggressive path and push toward systemic, structural, far-reaching, and long-lasting reforms in public education," he said. He called on the school board to close struggling schools and "fire every adult in the building."
He actually sounded a lot like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who's made attacking the teachers unions a centerpiece of his administration—so much so that Homero Tristan, a lawyer for UNO, noted the similarity.
But Rangel dismissed the notion that he has much in common with the GOP. Christie "actually gave a speech yesterday at the Republican convention, and I'm going to be at the Democrat convention," he said. "Big difference."