Friday, September 19, 2008

J. Patrick Rooney: now, there was "compassionate conservatism"

From Russ Pulliam on the passing of J. Patrick Rooney from the Indy Star's webpage...

Pulliam cites me at the end of the article-- in a comment I made on another blog. I should have reproduced my comment on my own blog, but this gives me an occasion to do so.

Beyond my brief summary of Rooney's great life, Pulliam's essay is worth reading because it provides context for Rooney's personal life and public policy choices. Pulliam also mentions his advocacy of MSA/HSA's-- another key public policy reform of the last 30 years.

May God continue to bless the work of Rooney's hands for generations after he has moved on to his eternal home.

Ideas have consequences, as the late J. Patrick Rooney knew.

He could have retired to a comfortable beach in Florida after building a successful Indianapolis-based insurance business. But Rooney, who died this week, took his business skills into the social and political arena, wielding a rare amount of local and national influence in those retirement years.

He started with simple truths, such as caring for the poor and the value of competition. Then he put them into practice and persuaded others to join him. He was a true compassionate conservative, long before George W. Bush used the notion to win the presidency.

Rooney thought parents had been left behind when it came to public education in the 1980s. He and other business leaders asked the Indiana General Assembly to let low-income families in the inner city have vouchers to send their children to public or private schools. They found a champion in Democratic state Sen. Louis Mahern, but the legislature said no.

Instead of walking away, Rooney used his own money to start a private scholarship fund. Almost immediately, 700 poor families signed up for their children to attend private schools. Others, including Mitch Daniels, joined Rooney in what became the CHOICE Charitable Trust.

CHOICE offered a private school option to thousands of low-income families and made Indianapolis Public Schools face a new level of competition. CHOICE was duplicated in more than 50 other cities, also giving a boost to the charter school movement.

Education reform based on competition was never an exclusively conservative idea in the political sense. Urban Democrats, such as Mahern, could be just as eloquent about the need to free low-income families from the public school monopoly.

Rooney wasn't moved just by ideology in these matters. He got a close-up view of the challenges many urban families face as a member of the predominantly black Holy Angels Catholic Church in Indianapolis. He believed, as a matter of social justice, that poor families should have the educational choices that wealthy families already had.

When he wasn't pushing for educational options in his "retirement years," Rooney launched another movement -- the creation of medical savings accounts. He wanted individuals and families to shop for medical care, injecting competition into the insurance-dominated medical care system.

At his death, Rooney received tributes from Democrats such as former U.S. Rep. Andrew H. Jacobs Jr. and Republicans like state chairman Murray Clark. A Libertarian Party candidate for Congress in southern Indiana, Eric Schansberg, summed up his education initiative in this tribute on the HoosierAccess blog: "A lot of conservatives don't care all that much about the inner-city poor; a lot of liberals say they care, but are beholden to statism, elitism and the teachers unions. Thank God for people like J. Patrick Rooney who stepped outside those boxes."


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