A public school’s name conveys to students our priorities about the values that they should emulate. Traditionally, Americans, working through their school boards, named public schools after presidents, founding figures, or other leaders, whose accomplishments could serve as models for young citizens. But according to our analysis of recent trends in school names, it’s increasingly rare for public schools to have the names of presidents, or even people. Instead, they take the names of natural features, such as hills, lakes, or animals.
In Arizona, for example, 9 percent of schools built before 1948 honored presidents in their names. Among schools built in the last two decades, however, only 1 percent were named for presidents, while the fraction of schools named for natural features increased from 13 percent before 1948 to 50 percent since 1988. A new school in Arizona is almost 50 times more likely to have the name of something like a cactus or a mesa than of a leader of the free world. We’ve reached the point where as many Arizona schools are named after the roadrunner bird as after Thomas Jefferson. Beep-beep!
The situation is no different in Florida, where currently only five of the state’s nearly 3,000 public schools bear George Washington’s name, while 11 are named after manatees (three, admittedly, in Manatee County). In total, 59 Florida schools are named for presidents, compared with 155 for lakes, 91 for woods, and 57 for hills. The fraction of schools named for natural features has nearly doubled in the last five decades, from 19 percent to 37 percent, while those named after presidents have declined from 7 percent to less than 1 percent.
In fact, this pattern shows up all over the country. In Minnesota, the fraction of public schools named for presidents dropped from 14 percent of schools built more than 50 years ago to 3 percent of schools built in the last decade. Meanwhile, schools named for natural features almost tripled, from 11 percent of those built before 1956 to 31 percent of those built since 1996. Even in historic Massachusetts, only one “Adams” school exists, honoring native sons John and John Quincy Adams, out of almost 1,800 public schools.
The increasing prominence of social activism and multiculturalism makes it surprising that more schools aren’t named after contemporary social activists or ethnic heroes. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name adorns only 121 out of almost 100,000 public schools nationwide. While it’s striking that there are 45 “César Chávez” public schools and only 37 “Harry Truman” schools, the general trend shows a decline in public schools’ taking the names of people, period. Florida schools taking people’s names declined from 44 percent of those built more than 50 years ago to about 26 percent of schools opened in the last decade. In New Jersey, almost half of the schools built more than 60 years ago were named for people, compared with about one-quarter of schools built in the last two decades.
Why are schools increasingly likely to bear the names of trees, rivers, or birds, instead of politicians, educators, or explorers? One reason is that naming schools after people often provokes a conflict: Are the honorees worthy of emulation? Naming them after natural features, by contrast, is generally inoffensive. After all, who doesn’t love manatees? The political coalitions governing public schools are increasingly reluctant to expend political capital fighting over school names.
Unfortunately, such caution betrays public education’s civic mission. To teach civics effectively, we have to affirm that democracy and liberty are superior to other systems of government and that the history of democratic societies—shaped by the leadership of people whose names we should know—reinforces this point. If we can’t agree on a school name less innocuous than a creek, what are the odds that schools will teach, say, the importance of the Founders or take a stand on the virtues of liberty?
Recent evidence confirms that schools are falling short in this key department. According to a survey by the Knight Foundation, 42 percent of high school teachers reported that schools did a poor to fair job of teaching students about First Amendment freedoms. On the U.S. Department of Education’s 2006 assessment of civics knowledge, only 27 percent of 12th-graders demonstrated proficiency, and one-third scored below the “basic” level. More than a third of 12th-graders didn’t know that the First Amendment protects freedom of worship.
America built its public education system on the belief that public control and operation of schools would help ensure healthy civic values. Unfortunately, groups more concerned with the next salary negotiation than with civic values tend to dominate local school boards, which are selected in low-turnout elections. Obviously, we aren’t going to restore the civic mission of public
education simply by renaming a bunch of schools after presidents. But the names given to schools reflect our priorities as much as they shape our values. We should pay attention to the naming of public schools the way we’d pay attention to the canary in a coal mine. When we’re naming more schools after birds than after presidents, something is amiss.