How to Teach Virtue? Start with a Charter School.

Yes. The title is sarcasm.

But the idea must be acknowledged. It sprang from the mind of one of most venerable Famous Educators, a hoary pillar of the never-ending education reform movement, Chester E. Finn, known to his fellow reformistas as ‘Checker.’ Checker is currently paterfamilias of the Thomas Fordham Institute group, one of whom, Michael Petrilli, recently suggested that the education reform movement has been so successful in accomplishing its goals that it was currently fading into media obscurity. As if.

I have never been a fan of Finn’s approach to school reform. (Click here, for example.) Finn, whose teaching career spanned one full year, is one of those private-school, private-colleges, wordsmithy edu-pundits who look down—way down—on fully public education, seeing it as a hopeless tax-funded entitlement program for subpar youth.

My favorite example of this comes from his book, Troublemaker, a very readable sort-of autobiography where he positions himself as an education policy rebel—a ‘gadfly’– poking at sacred public education cows. He talks about the difficulties he had teaching high school as a newbie, and blames them on the lack of a good syllabus. Because in working with ‘tough’ kids, with ‘few prospects,’ a rigidly defined curriculum rich with the classical canon is your ace in the hole as a novice teacher.  (Sarcasm again. Sorry. There’s something about Finn’s George Willesque writing that brings out the snark.)

Finn now writes the occasional op-ed at Flypaper (get it?), tutting about mistakes made by those who persist in defending public education and don’t see issues his way. His most recent one is ‘Rekindling moral education: A worthy challenge for schools of choice.’  If you’d like a get a flavor of Finn’s erudition and moral rectitude, you can read it, but I’ll summarize for you:

The nation is going to heck in a handbasket, and it’s time for schools to get on the stick and start teaching some values moral certainties, because ‘we’ are observing ‘an excess of selfishness, cheating, laziness, and willingness to be a burden on others.’

He (Finn) has read two excellent essays, comparing the views of Aristotle, Kant and Rousseau (a long-time favorite target for Finn), and thinks we could benefit from high-quality, philosophy-driven moral instruction in our schools, the kind of instruction that private and especially religious schools have always embraced.

In fact, it’s an ‘obligation’ for schools of choice to embark on this, right away. Regular public schools, which Finn has taken to calling ‘compulsory-education schools,’ however, shouldn’t even bother. They’re faceless bureaucracies, after all, and they dare not offend their ‘common’ constituencies by trying to ‘habituate certain values.’ Finn puts ‘Blaine Amendments’ in quotes, lamenting the fact that religion has been shut out of public education. Charter schools, on the other hand—well, there may be some ‘workarounds.’

Finn finishes the column with some high-flown blah-blah about teaching the Categorical Imperative to school-of-choice kindergarteners–trusting that TFA corps members could develop the curriculum, no doubt, doing their bit to hold back the ‘debased and unworthy society’ that’s coming down the pike.

Well. Speaking as a long-time compulsory-attendance schoolteacher, I can testify that character education has always been a part of public schooling. In fact, the foundation of most school discipline practice, K-12—from simple classroom rules, morning meetings and honor councils all the way to formal programs like Restorative Justice and (God help us) Canter’s Assertive Discipline—has been established to shape the character and behavior of students. The idea that public schools shy away from defining morally correct behavior and overlook genuine offenses is ludicrous.

In fact, if there is a societal force moving against teaching truth and justice in public schools, it might be our own legislatures. Here in Michigan, it took 18 public ‘listen and learn’ sessions to overturn right-wing edits to the state’s social studies standards:  People discovered references of the government’s role in guaranteeing freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of press had been struck. So were references to the Underground Railroad, women’s rights activists and the suffrage movement as well as emerging civil rights of immigrants and the LGBTQ community.

As I was reading Finn’s rapturous description of parochial schools and their long-time commitment to the inculcation of virtue, I thought about Brett Kavanaugh’s calendar of debauchery and phony, spitting outrage when his entitlement was threatened. Religious-based schools do indeed have the freedom to teach their preferred principles and models—and parents have the prerogative to pay for the privilege of having their kids attend school with similarly well-connected families—but none of that is a guarantee that Catholic schoolboys adopt a higher standard of moral behavior in adulthood.

It’s Checker Finn’s titular assertion that charter schools are the perfect place for character education to get a good toehold on changing society that’s most absurd. Perhaps Checker Finn hasn’t been following the endless (and I do mean endless) stories of charter corruption. Charter schools have been around long enough to have posted some solid evidence about their efficacy and outcomes—when Finn mentions that some of them have used their commitment to personal merit as a ‘brand,’ he does so without apparent irony.

Perhaps he hasn’t seen the videos, or understood that the adorable children in ‘Waiting for Superman’ have not been ‘saved’ from the debased and unworthy world he fears. If Checker Finn were to show up in my town, he couldn’t have a conversation with the ‘visionary’ charter school founder here, because he’s in prison for financial malfeasance, although he’s still collecting rent from his personal school of choice. Moral rectitude, indeed.

I don’t disagree with Checker Finn’s take that the world has grown colder, and less worried about honesty and integrity.  But I think there’s another reason why. It has to do with role models, not school governance models.



  1. Great one, Nancy! Right wingers think they have a monopoly on ethics when in reality they have no idea what it is. Their actions prove it. From your title, I thought you were going to argue that if they want to really teach about morals, they’d lead by example and close all their unethical charter schools!



  2. You know the old advice on making your title snappy and magnetic, right?
    Seriously, it would be nice to think that there would be a national epiphany about charter schools, and they would be phased out or incorporated into fully public systems. Not likely to happen–but I’m thinking the trend toward starting charter schools with a ‘moral integrity’ mission might be re-thought and tamped down.



  3. I live in MD where Checker sits on the BoEd. SEL has made a huge appearance on the scene in our public schools and it is truly very creepy. I have pulled #2 out of public school and we pay for private HS because of all of this nonsense. Yes, he is correct about the ethics, but what he doesn’t get is that the policies/deforms he helps to enact are the direct cause of the lack of morality. Comparison leads to competition which then leads to the cheating…over stupid test scores! Competition keeps consumerism and the free market flowing. It’s all about the money. The other thing that Checker doesn’t understand is that teaching is an art….an art that he doesn’t possess. Even years ago when Checker was a “teacher” (and there was much more morality in the world), Checker wanted his students to sit quietly at desks and “absorb” knowledge like a tape recorder without any regard to actually “learning” the content.



    1. Thanks for a perceptive comment– much of what is deemed ‘immoral’ is supported by policies that sort kids, selecting the ‘right’ ones for perks and privileges and assuming the others will be content to be worker bees for the corporations. Nationally, and state to state, the insistence on standardization and competition for limited benefits causes all kinds of ugly outcomes for kids.



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