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Enough talk.

After Indiana lawmakers failed to enact a school choice program, insurance executive J. Patrick Rooney set up his own choice program to help Indianapolis schoolchildren afford a private education. It's all part of Rooney's guest to live up to his company's name, Golden Rule.

The name of J. Patrick Rooney's company couldn't be more fitting.

Rooney, chairman of Golden Rule Insurance Co. in Indianapolis, spends his days trying to live up to the biblical creed: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." He has a vision of a world free of racial barriers and discrimination, a world where children of all backgrounds can get the education they need to prosper, a world where fairness and equality prevail--in personal lives as well as in business dealings. But unlike many idealists, Rooney is both a dreamer and a doer.

As a dreamer of educational excellence, he became a doer by setting up a tuition fund to help low-income Indianapolis families send their children to private schools. As a dreamer of racial harmony and integration, he became a doer by joining a predominantly black church. As a dreamer of business fairness, he became a doer by taking state insurance departments to court to get them to treat all insurance companies equally.

"I'm old enough to remember that when you got on the train in Chicago and were going south, there would be certain cars marked 'colored people' and other cars for white people; they would be separate, and the fact is, it wasn't equal. Today, our society has progressed. We have decided that today, we should have equal treatment for all of the children of God, whether they're white children or black children or Hispanic children.

"The same thing applies to insurance, by gosh," adds Rooney, son of the founder of Golden Rule, which with premium income of more than $400 million is the nation's largest writer of individual major-medical insurance. "We ought to have standards, the standards ought to be published, and they ought to apply the same to everybody. We have taken one insurance department after the other to court on this subject, and we have won every time. We're in the business of teaching them about due process of law."

Most recently, Rooney and Golden Rule have been in the spotlight for getting into the business of education reform. Like many Americans, Rooney is frustrated that school reforms undertaken in recent years haven't borne much fruit. School choice is an approach that Rooney thinks might make all the difference. The theory is that if schools must compete for enrollment, they will be forced to improve.

School choice is gaining momentum, but not quickly enough for Rooney. When the Indiana General Assembly failed to enact a choice program, Rooney went into action with his own. Known as the Choice Charitable Trust, it offers to pay half the cost of private-school tuition--up to a maximum of $800 per student per year--for qualifying families within the Indianapolis Public Schools district. Golden Rule has pledged at least three years of support--at a total cost of $1.2 million--though a company publication adds that Choice will continue "as long as the company continues to prosper."

Rooney says it's imperative for the quality of education to improve now, because it's getting harder and harder to get by in the adult world without good reading and mathematics skills. "We're going to harvest the crop, whether we like it or not," he says. "The young people that are not getting educated are going to grow up and want jobs, and want to play a role in our society besides crime. But the jobs are getting more difficult, not less difficult. They're getting more intellectually demanding, not less intellectually demanding."

And all of society eventually bears the cost of poor education, he adds. "If we don't want to pay for the welfare and if we don't want to pay for the crime, then we damn well better give them the rudimentary skills with which they can perform a job function. And that means the ability to read and the ability to do some mathematics."

Among those who are benefitting, the response has been enthusiastic. Within days of the program's launch, more than a thousand parents quickly snapped up applications for the 500 scholarships Golden Rule offered. Eli Lilly & Co. and other area businesses put up additional money to make funds available to another couple hundred students.

The Wall Street Journal lauds Rooney's plan as "a breakthrough in corporate support for educational choice." The newspaper's editorial pages suggest that businesses in other cities follow suit. "It's potentially an opportunity to help create the kind of work force that so many managers say they're looking for--well-educated, diverse, motivated." And businesses in other cities apparently are considering heeding the newspaper's advice, judging from the inquiries that Rooney's office has fielded.

The Choice program is not without critics, however. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as well as some other organizations say if Golden Rule wants to improve education, it should give its money directly to the public school system.

But, Rooney insists, the aim of the Choice program is not to destroy public education but to challenge it in a way that it never had been challenged before. "When all families, no matter how poor, have the freedom to walk away from bad schools, competition will force the public schools to improve."

Choice, advocates point out, is nothing new for families that can afford private-school tuition. And, they add, that may be one reason public schools often are better in wealthier areas. Patrick J. Keleher Jr. is president of TEACH America, a national organization that favors school choice. He says his own child received a fine education in public schools in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Ill., an affluent community where many families have the money to choose private education. "We had the threat of exit," he says, an economic voting power not present in most school districts, particularly inner-city districts.

Though school choice has yet to pass in the Indiana General Assembly, it is gaining press as a campaign issue. Both major candidates for mayor of Indianapolis, for example, back some form of school choice, and President Bush plans to make choice a major issue in next year's presidential election. And according to a recent poll conducted for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, 81 percent of Hoosiers favor the basic concept of school choice, while 54 percent back a voucher system that would use tax dollars to help families pay for private or parochial education.

What is it that makes education better in some private schools than in many public schools? That's not an easy question to answer, but Rooney says the reasons themselves are of secondary importance. "I don't have to know what the reason is. The evidence is clear that the private schools do a lot better job, and that is particularly true for the lowest-income segment of our society."

That said, Rooney offers a few theories about the differences between private and public education. "The teachers in the church-related schools are trying to do the work of the Lord, and the work of the Lord includes providing tender, loving care. They probably do provide a more caring environment than those same neglected children would find in the public schools," Rooney says.

"Secondly," he adds, "in the private school they believe that they are entitled to have discipline in the classroom, and when they believe they can have discipline, it turns out that the students believe it, too."

Rooney says expecting respect is not such a far-fetched idea, even in inner-city schools that have a reputation for violence and anarchy. "One of the things that's significant in the minority community, both black and Hispanic, is their parents are really in favor of respect for authority. The black families know what it is like when there is chaos and disruption and they have no sympathy for it. It's the white liberals who tolerate chaos; black people don't."

Rooney is, perhaps, better qualified to make such statements than the average white person because he has more black friends and acquaintances than does the average white person. That is due in part to his choice of churches: For nine years, Rooney has been one of only a handful of white members of Holy Angels Church on the near-north side of Indianapolis.

"I was aware of the fact that white people had been willing to have some integration on their terms. The white church would be glad to welcome a few black families," he explains. "But I wondered what it would be like to go as a white person to an all-black church and have integration on black people's terms, where they're the dominant voice and white folks are not. I decided that that's something I could do, have integration for me. I wasn't imposing it upon anybody else, but it was something I could do to go to the black community and integrate in their environment."

His church membership has given Rooney a unique insight into the problems facing black Americans, as well as some of their views on solutions. "One of the things that I'm really interested in for blacks is power and self-respect, and by God, they're more interested in it than I am. What I'm not interested in is having black people say, 'Thank you Mr. Rooney, thank you Mr. Rooney.' Rather, I'm interested in helping them so that they can thank themselves for what they are doing for themselves.

"I'm interested in empowerment, and I know that's what black people want," Rooney says. "They don't want to be beholden to the white man, they want to do it for themselves, and I want to help them do it for themselves."

Such are the views that give writers fits as they try to classify Rooney. He sees himself as a conservative Republican, though concern for minorities is a trait many liberals claim as their own.

What is predictable about Rooney's views is that they all seem to stem from a sincere concern for humankind, in areas that include civil liberties. That's what led him to join the board of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. Four years after then-candidate George Bush derided Michael Dukakis for being a "card-carrying member" of the allegedly liberal American Civil Liberties Union, Rooney remains one of the higher-profile conservative ACLU members.

Rooney finds merit in Bush's criticisms, but is unwilling to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. "There are other Republicans in the Indiana Civil Liberties Union besides me, and each of us is trying to remind them that their proper role is to be concerned with civil liberties, not with the agenda of the Democratic Party." His views have earned the respect of Michael Lee Gradison, executive director of the ICLU, who has likened Rooney to a "rugged individualist of earlier days."

In the insurance industry, a description that often precedes Rooney's name is "maverick." "We have been crusaders that the insurance regulatory process should be based upon due process of law. It is a civil liberties issue."

He explains that many state insurance agencies regularly enforce rules and decide rate cases differently, depending on the company, the circumstances, or even the mood of the regulator. "Regulation without legal standards" is how Rooney describes it, and he says it is driving many large health insurers out of the business of writing individual health policies. That, he says, is one of the major reasons there are some 37 million Americans who don't have health coverage.

Rooney points to speed limits as examples of how laws should be enforced: They are properly adopted and posted, and they are the same for all motorists driving similar vehicles. "In regard to insurance regulation, we think the same thing should apply," he says. "There should be a standard that is properly adopted, and that generally means by law, or if not by law, then by proper rule. And then the standard should be published in books that are available to the regulated parties. And it should apply the same to all companies, not one standard for us and a different standard for other companies."

Golden Rule has taken insurance departments to court in several states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, Iowa and South Carolina, and cases are pending in Florida and North Carolina. In once recent case, Golden Rule filed a grievance against the insurance department in Florida after the department denied a rate-increase request. A hearing officer found that Golden Rule's rate request was denied because it lacked certain information that the state didn't require of other insurers. The officer called that discrimination against Golden Rule, and said it showed that the state's insurance rules could be changed "at the whim of regulatory officials."

Golden Rule's campaign has been successful, and with each success such as the one in Florida Rooney's rebellion gains more respect among his insurance colleagues. It's an important fight, he says, because insurance department decisions can have a significant impact on a company's profitability. "Whether we're on the better side or the worse side, we think the same standard should apply to everyone."

Rooney's fight for fairness continues on the diverse fronts he has chosen. And whether they agree with his views or not, a growing number of people around the country seem to be listening to what Rooney has to say.
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Title Annotation:the school choice program of J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of Golden Rule Insurance Co.
Author:Kaelble, Steve
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Words:2251
Previous Article:Midwest still outperforming the nation.
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