If You Love Our Children, It’s Time to Find Alternatives to Public Schools

Published June 1, 1997

The country’s growing private school voucher movement owes its birth and a large part of its success to J. Patrick Rooney, chairman emeritus of Golden Rule Insurance Company. In 1991, Rooney established a private voucher program in Indianapolis that has since blossomed into CEO America, a $40 million not-for-profit operation that makes it possible for more than 13,500 children across the nation to attend schools of their choice.

Following his graduation as an economics major from St. John’s University in Minnesota, Rooney joined Golden Rule Insurance and was elected chairman and CEO of the company in 1976. He gained national prominence in 1991-92 with his proposal for bringing the idea of Individual Retirement Accounts to the health care field. The Medical Savings Accounts proposed by Rooney were designed to bring medical care spending under control and to provide everyone with access to affordable health care coverage.

Rooney is an outspoken advocate for equality and educational opportunity. Recently, Mr. Rooney spoke with the managing editor of School Reform News, George Clowes.

Clowes: What led you to create your private voucher program in Indianapolis?

Rooney: In the spring of 1991, a new organization called COMMIT caused legislation to be introduced in the Indiana legislature that would have permitted students to go to different schools based upon the parents’ choice, with taxpayer funding following the student. That legislation got nowhere.

But it did move me to give attention to the subject. I was disappointed, though not surprised, that the legislation got nowhere.

I have been intensely involved with inner-city African-Americans and am much concerned for their advancement. Equality is never going to be meaningful in America if we continue to give black children such an inadequate education.

Because I was moved to do something, I went to our company president–I was the chairman of the board at the time–and proposed that Golden Rule start a privately funded scholarship program for inner-city children. It was a fairly simple decision. Golden Rule decided that it would put up the money to fund 500 children, and we would guarantee it to their parents for a period of at least three years. It has now gone on for a full five years, the program has grown, and there’s no prospect today of it coming to an end.

Clowes: What has been the response of the press and local government officials to private voucher programs?

Rooney: After the initial surprise for the media at the time the program was announced, the press and television coverage has been uniformly favorable for the choice scholarship program. The mayor has been an enthusiastic supporter of the program as well.

Clowes: Has your initiative been as successful as you had hoped?

Rooney: Yes, perhaps even more successful than we had expected, inasmuch as the program has now grown to about 1,150 children. Golden Rule’s initial commitment was to fund 500 children, but more than twice that number are presently being funded with the help of many other corporations and individuals.

We further measure our success by the fact that the Indianapolis program has been replicated in 29 other cities. There are a total of 30 programs around the nation today with 13,500 children attending a school of their parents’ choice.

Clowes: Rather than support private scholarships, why not focus on building support for publicly funded vouchers?

Rooney: I am doing both. I have been working with others to build support for publicly funded educational choice programs. A lot of progress is being made in that area.

Clowes: Mayor Stephen Goldsmith wants to take over the Indianapolis public school system. Do you think this is likely to improve achievement in the system?

Rooney: I was not aware that Mayor Goldsmith wants to “take over the Indianapolis school system.” I believe he would like the ability to appoint members to the Indianapolis public school board.

I believe that would help to improve the Indianapolis public school system. But I think it is unlikely that Mayor Goldsmith, or even the Lord himself, could turn the Indianapolis public school system into a well-performing system. The problem with giant urban school systems is a systemic problem.

Clowes: Why do you think so many of our public schools perform so poorly?

Rooney: Two important reasons. First, the public schools are too big. The second problem is lack of order or discipline, which is contributed to by the bigness. Chaos is the rule, and chaos tends to be destructive of the educational process.

Clowes: Some people oppose school choice because they believe it will lead to segregation and polarization along racial or religious lines. Is there anything in the CEO America choice programs that would address these concerns?

Rooney: All I can speak for is the children that are in the Educational CHOICE program in Indianapolis. For them the non-government schools they are attending are more integrated than the public schools.

It has the further advantage that minority children in the privately funded scholarship program are not led to believe that goodness is whiteness, as is the case when we bus black students for half-an-hour each way in order to sit them down in a classroom with white students. A long time ago, Malcolm X taught us that “black is beautiful.” Busing black students so they can sit next to a white student is the wrong message!

Clowes: Do you think charter schools are a positive development?

Rooney: Yes, but with qualification. Charter schools are, after all, government schools. However well they may start out, it is easy for the charter schools to relapse into being typical government schools.

Clowes: How can School Reform News readers–state policy makers, journalists, parents, and school reform activists–make a positive difference in students’ lives?

Rooney: The readers can go invade the schools. When I was in grade school, my mother came to school to visit. That was the public school, and my mother was there in the back of the room. It was unusual, but it did happen.

Today it is unusual for parents to visit the school. In general, parents are not very welcome in the public schools, but they are very welcome in the non-government schools.

It is not necessary to be a parent in following this instruction. State policy makers, journalists, and everybody else should visit the public schools and non-government schools as well.

Clowes: What one message would you like most to communicate to state policy makers, journalists, and our readers about education issues?

Rooney: My single message: Quit kidding ourselves, and quit arguing that one more effort will change things. We’ve been making “one more effort” for the last twenty years and all we’ve gotten is schools that have continued to deteriorate.

The problem in the government-run school system is a systemic problem, which cannot be fixed with a better principal or better teachers or more money or any of the other conventional ideas for remedy. The problems are built into the system. The problems are fundamentally that the system is too big, order and discipline are not possible to carry out in that environment, and caring deteriorates when the environment is such that the normal person is prone to think of the children as if they were numbers, as if they were cattle.

We are not going to fix the present system, so quit kidding ourselves. We must look at alternatives if we love our children.