If You Love Our Children, It's Time to Find Alternatives to Public Schools
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
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
But it did move me to give attention to the subject. I was
disappointed, though not surprised, that the legislation got
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
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
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
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
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.