The Corner

Peter Flanigan, R.I.P.

Peter Magnus Flanigan died Monday in Austria, surrounded by his family. It was an amazing life. Here is the introduction I gave him last month at the Portsmouth Institute, the night after his 90th-birthday dinner at the New York Yacht Club in Newport, at which he included WFB in his list of “great men of ideas”:

Peter Flanigan ‘41 will introduce this evening’s speaker, George Weigel. A decorated fighter pilot in World War II and honors graduate of Princeton, Peter was a longtime partner at Dillon Read and regarded by many who worked for him there as a mentor and “the conscience” of the firm as Wall Street was transformed in the 1980s and 1990s. He was special assistant for international economic affairs to the President of the United States from 1969 to 1974. He has been active in many philanthropic and public policy activities, especially in the area of education reform, and was the founder of Student Sponsor Partners, an organization that pairs what we used to call yuppie sponsors with deserving but needy students in New York City’s Catholic high schools. Today SSP helps provide a quality education to over 2,000 students annually, over 90% of whom go on to college, but I remain proud of the fact that, in its inaugural year in the mid-1980s, out of the first 42 sponsors, 7 were Portsmouth alumni. Peter is the father and grandfather of seven Portsmouth graduates thus far, and still counting. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome an authentic member of the Greatest Generation who remains at the very top of his game today, Mr. Peter Flanigan.

(In typical fashion, Peter’s first line was, “Thank you, Jamie, but if you think this is the top of my game, you’re wrong.”)

Better than any words of mine, however, were Peter’s own remarks, entitled “Lessons in Liberty,” as an honoree at the Manhattan Institute’s 2004 Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner:

Thank you, John, for that fulsome introduction, and thank you ladies and gentlemen — friends of the Manhattan Institute all — for being with us.

I could not help wondering, as I am sure you were wondering, how I came to be included in such illustrious company on this platform.

Bob Bartley was a very dear friend, but more than that, an intellectual mentor. For 25 years his Wall Street Journal editorial page instructed us on how to think about national issues, on how freedom is best defended both at home and abroad, and why free markets and private property are the moral expression of man’s God-given economic creativity. Edith, Bob’s wisdom and memory will always be cherished at the Manhattan Institute.

Bill Buckley is another very dear friend and mentor. How many of us “classical liberals” were stimulated, educated, and nourished as young conservatives at his National Review’s knee? With me that stimulation continues at regular luncheons and sailing adventures from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas. Bill, may these adventures, intellectual and otherwise, long continue.

But the question remains — how did I get up here? Perhaps the reason is that I learned well from Bob Bartley and Bill Buckley about the need to fight for and to defend freedom. The battleground that I chose for myself in this fight for freedom is education.

Most of America’s children are free, but tragically, many of its most needy and vulnerable children remain in educational bondage. Dick Gilder, the Hamilton Award recipient in 2002, does not exaggerate when he says that 150 years ago, we freed our African-American citizens physically; 40 years ago, with the Voting Rights Act, we freed them politically; and now, to give them the opportunity to fully participate in our society, we must free them educationally.

I would venture that virtually everyone in this room went to a school, either public or private, chosen by his parents. None of you was trapped in a dysfunctional school. Yet for our inner-city, largely minority, poor children, that is precisely the fate to which we as a society condemn them. They must go to schools that, in all too many cases, they know simply do not educate.

How can we change that? For twenty years, we have been trying to do it with money. In New York City, per capita, constant dollar spending has increased dramatically. Now we have a court-mandated program to increase the city’s already enormous education budget from $12 billion to $18 billion, or about $18,000 per student — and that is for operations only — not capital expenditures. And yet with all that money, inner-city test scores and inner-city graduation rates have not budged.

What we have not tried is freedom. Freedom for poor parents to choose the schools that they think are best for their children. And freedom for those schools that are not chosen to close. Sy Fliegel, who is here, and who was the first staff member of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Educational Innovation (now the independent Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association), started the move to freedom when, twenty-five years ago, he allowed intra-district public-school choice in New York City’s District 4. Sister Josephine and Father Victor and Tom Smith, sitting right here, run an elementary school in East Harlem; all of its pupils’ parents have chosen to send their children there. Expenditure per child is less than one-third of what the city spends. But their students outperform the public-school students in the same school district, on the New York State tests, by an enormous margin. The children are the same, and their teachers are paid less. Could not — is not — the difference in outcome a reflection of one system being based on freedom, the freedom to choose, and the other system being based on government direction?

The Student Sponsor Partners, which Chris O’Malley, who is right here, runs, has had the same dramatic success with 4,000 poor, inner-city high-school kids who chose to move from high-spending public schools to inner-city private schools that spend one-half as much per student. And his success, measured against comparable public high-school students, has been validated by a study by the Rand Corporation. Again — freedom.

That same parental freedom to choose is what distinguishes the two excellent Beginning With Children charter schools started by Joe and Carol Reich, sitting over there. Their first school was born, after severe labor pains, as a regular public school. But when the public-school bureaucracy, regulations, and labor contracts made success almost impossible, they converted it to a public charter school. And they started their second school as a charter school from the beginning.

Mary Grace Eapen and Kristin Kearns — two exceptional young women who “cut their educational teeth” running the Student Sponsor Partners several years ago, and who are right there — having learned the magic of freedom have also founded charter schools. Kristin’s Bronx Preparatory School, after only four years, is moving into a brand new building this fall. And Mary Grace has just chosen by lottery the first hundred students from 300 applicants for her Bronx School of Excellence. “Eternal vigilance being the price of freedom,” they and we need to be eternally vigilant that the political forces do not encroach on the essential freedom of charter public schools. And be assured — those foxes are trying.

Our battle for educational freedom has moved us from New York City to New York State to the nation at large. With Manhattan Institute friends like Roger Hertog, Bruce Kovner, Tom Tisch, and others, we are engaged across the country through the School Choice Alliance, dedicated to the proposition that parents should be free to choose their children’s schools.

So perhaps I am before you tonight because I listened well to Bob Bartley and Bill Buckley as they taught the blessings of freedom. And being a dutiful student, I have tried, with the help of so many in this room, to apply their teaching of freedom to education, particularly to the education of our most needy children. I have found that in this endeavor, as in all endeavors, freedom works. So I thank you for this honor, and hope all of you will join with us in this battle for educational freedom.

— James MacGuire is director of the Portsmouth Institute.