Peter Flanigan, a guiding light of the school choice movement, R.I.P.

Peter Flanigan
Peter Flanigan

Peter Flanigan, one of the giants of the education reform movement, passed away last week at age 90. The Wall Street Journal featured this tribute in its Saturday edition.

Peter unknowingly recruited me into the parental school choice movement before even meeting me. My first (and accidental) exposure to non-public education was in 1996 through a program Peter established, the Patrons Program. This program matched business people with individual Catholic schools in poor parts of New York City. I, along with my good friend John Griffin, were matched with Christ the King School in the South Bronx. We gave it money, sure – but it gave me an education.

For the first time I met poor parents who would do anything to see their children get a good education. To pay for the $3,200 tuition, these parents would work two jobs and even cut off their TV service. They did this when there was a free public school nearby. They didn’t say the public schools weren’t any good; they just weren’t right for their children. This experience prompted me to start a private scholarship program in Tampa Bay in 1998. We received 12,000 applications for our 700 scholarships. I plunged into the movement and never looked back.

I finally met Peter in 1999 when I joined the board of Children First America, a non-profit dedicated to bringing more school choice to low-income parents. He was already a board member, of course. I was amazed what he had already accomplished in life. The Journal account doesn’t mention his stint as a naval pilot in World War Two. Can you imagine a life in which that’s a throwaway item? I had the great pleasure of both working with Peter and for him; in 2001 I left my business to become president of CFA. Peter’s advice and guidance to me during this period were invaluable.

Peter remained a guiding light of the school choice movement to the end.  He remained on the boards – and was a vital, contributing member – of all the successor organizations to CFA until his passing. Other than perhaps John Walton, I can think of no other person who has done more to empower low-income parents to do what is best for their kids.

I’m sure they’re together now, comparing notes on the movement’s progress. I only hope we can live up to their examples and their expectations.

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BY John Kirtley

Chairman of Florida scholarship organization for low-income students, Vice Chair of American Federation For Children, a national parental choice organization