In Memoriam

Pat Rooney, RIP

By From the November 2008 issue

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PAT ROONEY was a special kind of businessman. He did far more than merely provide jobs for employees and services for his customers, as important as those goals are. He helped change the course of public policy in our country because he believed in the power of ideas and invested his money and courage in furthering them. His death in September at age 80 robbed America of one of its most principled business leaders.

J. Patrick Rooney started out as a humble door-to-door insurance salesman who would gorge on pancakes for breakfast so he wouldn’t have to spend money on lunch or dinner. He eventually built his Indianapolis-based Golden Rule Insurance Company from nothing into a leader in the individual health insurance market. But he moonlighted as one of the country’s most innovative philanthropists and policy entrepreneurs.

During the 1980s, while other businessmen were trying to apply Band-Aids to a badly broken public education system, Rooney plumped for school choice. He was one of only three white members of Holy Angels Catholic Church in inner-city Indianapolis. Talking to parents there, he resolved to do more than lobby the legislature for school reform. In 1991, he established the Educational Choice Charitable Trust, one of the earliest scholarship programs of its kind; today it offers grants to more than 1,700 low-income Indianapolis children.

But back then such a move was highly controversial. It brought howls of protest from public school hard-liners. School board members predicted that parents would shun the vouchers out of loyalty to the public schools. A. D. Pinckney, president of the local NAACP chapter, told reporters Golden Rule should give the money to the public school system instead. “We need to support them,” he said. “To do anything else will be disastrous.”

Mr. Rooney didn’t listen to such special pleading, and he soon developed allies in the black community. Bill Crawford, a state legislator at the time who represented a 70 percent black Indianapolis district, stepped forward. He backed Rooney’s plan and noted that 54 percent of the city’s elementary school students scored below grade level on national tests. “Public schools give up on kids more easily than private schools,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “They are also unwilling to discipline students effectively.” He quickly found that his constituents enthusiastically supported Rooney’s plan.

Until Rooney’s effort, critics often attacked vouchers as a subsidy for middle-class families who could already afford private schools. Rooney put the emphasis on children in failing schools who stood to benefit the most from the introduction of choice and competition. “When all families, no matter how poor, have the freedom to walk away from bad schools, competition will force the public schools to improve.”

Today more than 60 such programs are providing choice for some 53,000 students around the country, all in part based on Rooney’s original model. While political obstacles still block expansion of school choice in many states, the Rooney model has proven an effective demonstration program on how choice can open people’s eyes to the possibility of change. Polly Williams, the black state legislator who authored Wisconsin’s landmark school choice law, says programs like Rooney’s are important: “If legislatures won’t allow choice then corporate America can support it and eventually that may shame politicians into letting my people go.” She and other pro-choice minority legislators consider Rooney a leader in what they believe is the 21st century’s great civil rights struggle—establishing real educational opportunity for all Americans.

Pat Rooney was equally farsighted in health care reform. He became the leading advocate for health savings accounts at a time when HSAs were only a sketchy idea in public policy journals. Today the notion of combining coverage for catastrophic medical costs with a tax-free savings account for discretionary and routine medical spending has been broadly incorporated into government policy. Millions of Americans now have such accounts through their employers, who see them as a way to restore a consumer stake in getting value for money from health care spending.

Rooney was a kind and gentle soul who inspired confidence in his ideas and approach wherever he went. “He was a true believer in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes,” former Democratic congressman Andy Jacobs of Indiana recalls. In an era when American business is too often dominated by cold-blooded bean counters, Pat Rooney demonstrated that seeking a profit and advancing the public good go hand in hand.

John H. Fund is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and The American Spectator’s Politics columnist.

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About the Author

John H. Fund is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of the Stealing Elections (Encounter Books).