The names that school boards give to public schools can both reflect
and shape civic values. It is increasingly rare for public schools to be
named after presidents—or people, in general—and increasingly common to name
schools after natural features. This shift from naming schools after people
worthy of emulation to naming schools after hills, trees, or animals raises
questions about the civic mission of public education and the role that school
names may play in that civic mission.
After analyzing trends in public school names in seven states,
representing 20 percent of all public school students, we obtained
the following statistics:
- Of almost 3,000 public schools in Florida, five honor George Washington, compared with eleven named after manatees.
- In Minnesota, the naming of schools after presidents declined from 14 percent of schools built before 1956 to 3 percent of schools built in the last decade.
- In New Jersey, naming schools after people dropped from 45 percent of schools built before 1948 to 27 percent of schools built since 1988.
- In the last two decades, a public school built in Arizona was almost fifty times more likely to be named after such things as a mesa or a cactus than after a president.
- In Florida, nature names for schools increased from 19 percent of schools built before 1958 to 37 percent of schools built in the last decade.
- Similar patterns were observed in all seven states analyzed.
- Today, a majority of all public school districts nationwide do not have a single school named after a president.
Further research is necessary to identify the causes and consequences of these changes in the names given to public schools. The causes for the shift in school names may include broad cultural changes as well as changes in the political control of school systems. Given the weak outcomes for public schools on measures of civic education, the link between trends in school names and those civic outcomes is worthy of further exploration. Reports like this one can contribute to future research by providing basic facts on trends in school names as well as sparking discussion on the civic purposes of public schools and the role that school names play in those civic purposes.
About the Authors
JAY P. GREENE, is endowed chair and
head of the Department of Education Reform at
the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow
at the Manhattan Institute. He conducts research
and writes about topics such as school choice,
high school graduation rates, accountability,
and special education.
Dr. Greenes research was cited four times
in the Supreme Courts opinions in the
landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case
on school vouchers. His articles have appeared
in policy journals such as The Public Interest,
City Journal, and Education Next;
in academic journals such as The Georgetown
Public Policy Review, Education and
Urban Society, and The British Journal
of Political Science; as well as in newspapers
such as the Wall Street Journal and the
Washington Post. He is the author of
Education Myths (Rowman & Littlefield,
Dr. Greene has been a professor of government
at the University of Texas at Austin and the
University of Houston. He received a B.A. in
history from Tufts University in 1988 and a
Ph.D. from the Department of Government at Harvard
University in 1995. He lives with his wife and
three children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
BRIAN KISIDA and JONATHAN BUTCHER
are research associates in the Department of
Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.
Last year, the Fayetteville, Arkansas, public
school district closed its aging Jefferson Elementary
School, replacing it with a shiny new building
on the other side of the highway. The new building
needed a name; the school board could have transferred
the Jefferson name along with the students but
did not do so. Or they could have chosen the
name of another president; for example, they
could have honored Bill Clinton, who had been
a law professor at the university in Fayetteville
and later became governor and then president.
But if Clinton was thought inappropriate for
a school name, the board could have honored
the late J. William Fulbright, who hailed from
Fayetteville, graduated from its university,
and was the universitys president before
serving five terms in the U.S. Senate. Indeed,
there is no shortage of people the board could
have chosen to honor. Instead, they chose to
name the school Owl Creek, after
a small ditch with a trickle of water that runs
by the school.
According to our analysis of trends in school
names, the same story is playing out all over
the country. It is increasingly rare for schools
to be named after presidentsor people,
in generaland increasingly common to name
schools after natural features. In the case
of presidents, this trend runs contrary to what
one might expect to find. We continuously add
to the list of available options every four
to eight years when we elect new presidents,
while new schools that need names are built
every day. Yet today, the number of schools
in America that are named after presidents has
declined to fewer than 5 percent, and currently
an overwhelming majority of
Americas school districts do not have a
single school named after a president.
This shift from naming schools after people
worthy of emulation to naming schools after
hills, trees, or animals raises questions about
the civic mission of public education and the
role that school names play in that civic mission.
The names that school boards give to schools
both reflect and shape civic values. They reflect
values because naming a school after someone
or something provides at least an implicit endorsement
of the values that the name represents. And
school names can shape values by providing educators
with a teaching opportunity: teachers at a Lincoln
Elementary, for example, can reference the school
name to spark discussions of the evils of slavery
and the benefits of preserving our union.
The difficulty with naming a school after a
person is that it may provoke a debate over
whether that person is worthy of emulation.
To some, Lincoln freed the slaves and preserved
the union, while to others he abused executive
authority and trampled states rights.
To some, Jefferson articulated the founding
principles of our nation, while to others he
was a slaveholder. In New Orleans, the school
board voted in 1997 to forbid naming schools
after anyone who had owned slaves, forcing the
renaming of a school honoring George Washington.
Even naming a school after a local educator
can provoke a fight: Why this educator instead
of that one? It was following just such an argument
over naming a middle school after a local educator
that the Fayetteville school board decided that
they would rather honor ditches than dignitaries.
Because we believe that public schools can
and should restore their civic mission, we have
conducted this study of trends in school names.
We are under no illusion that simply renaming
a number of schools after historical figures
will spark a significant improvement in civic
values. But we believe that it is important
to highlight and track trends in public school
naming as an indicator of their civic commitment.
In the following section, we review trends in
school names from seven states, all of which
show a marked decline in naming schools after
people in general and presidents in particular,
accompanied by a sharp increase in naming schools
after natural features. We then discuss potential
consequences and causes for this shift in school
names. Last, we consider possible remedies.
We analyzed trends in public school names in
seven states: Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts,
Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
These states contain 20 percent of all public
school students in the United States and are
drawn from a variety of regions. While these
seven states are not technically a representative
sample, we believe that the consistent results
from these states capture national patterns,
given that they do represent the schools enrolling
one in five public school students from different
parts of the country.
To identify trends in school names, we obtained
from these states a list of public school names
with information on the age of the schools.
States collect this information to assess the
condition of their school infrastructure, but
we used the information as a sort of time
machine. By comparing the names of schools
that were built earlier with those built more
recently, we could see how school names have
changed. While data on the ages of schools are
much more readily available than historical
lists of schools, they provide an imperfect
picture of the changes in school naming. We
do not observe the names of schools that were
closed and no longer exist. Unless schools with
certain types of names are more likely to have
closed than schools built at the same time with
other names, using data on the ages of schools
should give us an unbiased view of school names
in previous periods.
For each state, we coded school names by type.
Because certain types of names might be more
prominent in a particular state, the categories
used to classify school names were not identical
across states. For example, naming schools after
the space program is more common in Florida
than in Minnesota, so there was a space
category for Florida but not for Minnesota.
In addition, the information available was not
identical for each state. For example, for some
states we had information on the street address
and city of the school, and for others we did
not. The difference in the extent of information
meant that a school might be identified as being
named after the street or place in which it
is located in one state but classified as other
in a different state. Because of these data
limitations, one should make comparisons across
states with great caution. But none of these
limitations should distort the picture over
time within each state. For further details
on how data were collected and coded, please
see the Methodological Appendix.
In every state we examined, there has been
a decline over time in the likelihood that schools
will be named after people, in general, and
presidents, in particular. Instead there has
been a shift toward giving schools nature
names. In Florida, 44 percent of schools built
before 1958 were named after people (see Table
1). This rate steadily dropped so that only
26 percent of schools built in the last decade
are named for people. Florida schools named
for presidents declined from 6.5 percent of
those built before 1958 to 0.9 percent of those
built in the last decade. If we include founding
figures, such as Hamilton and Franklin, and
southern leaders, such as Davis and Lee, with
presidents, the decline is from 10.1 percent
to 1.1 percent. Meanwhile, nature names increased
from 19 percent of schools built before 1958
to 37 percent of schools built in the last decade.
This shift in school naming has resulted in
a current mix of school names that gives priority
to nature names over presidents names.
Of almost 3,000 public schools in Florida, only
59 are named after presidents, while 155 are
named after lakes, 91 after woods, and 54 after
palm trees. Only five schools in Florida honor
George Washington, compared with eleven named
after manatees. In Florida, the sea cow trumps
the father of our country.
In Minnesota, the naming of schools after presidents
declined from 14 percent of schools built before
1956 to 3 percent of schools built in the last
decade (see Table
2). Comparing the same time periods, the
naming of schools after natural features increased
from 11 percent to 31 percent.
In New Jersey, 16 percent of schools built
before 1948 were named after presidents, compared
with 6 percent in the last two decades (see
3). If we include founding figures with
presidents, the decline is from 21 percent to
7 percent. Naming schools after people in general
dropped from 45 percent of schools built before
1948 to 27 percent of schools built since 1988,
while nature names went from 12 percent to 21
The shift to nature names is particularly striking
in Arizona (see Table
4). Before 1948, only 13 percent of schools
were given nature names. Since 1988, 50 percent
of schools have been named after natural features
or animals. During the same time comparison,
the naming of schools after presidents dropped
from 9 percent to 1 percent. In the last two
decades, a public school built in Arizona was
almost fifty times more likely to be named after
such things as a mesa or a cactus than after
a leader of the free world.
In Massachusetts, the shift in naming patterns
seems less dramatic (see Table
5). Even before 1948, only 4.6 percent of
public schools were named after presidents,
compared with 3.2 percent since 1988. Naming
schools after people in the Bay State dropped
from 62 percent before 1948 to 44 percent since
1988. And comparing the same time periods, schools
with nature names rose from 6 percent to 12
percent. While the changes do not appear as
striking in Massachusetts, the same trends observed
in other states are found there as well.
The changes in Ohio are also more subtle (see
6). Naming schools after presidents declined
from 10 percent of schools built before 1948
to 6 percent of schools built after 1987. If
we include founding figures with presidents,
the decline is somewhat more pronounced, from
13 percent of schools built before 1948 to 7
percent of schools built in the last two decades.
Nature names increased from 9 percent to 14
percent, comparing the same periods.
Wisconsin appears to have a large shift away
from naming schools after presidents, dropping
from 17 percent of schools built before 1950
to 3 percent of schools built between 1980 and
1999 (see Table
7). Naming schools after people plummeted
from 53 percent of schools built before 1950
to 25 percent built between 1980 and 1999. During
those same periods, nature names more than doubled,
from 16 percent to 33 percent. We should have
less confidence in the precision of these results
from Wisconsin because the data that the state
collected on the ages of schools did not include
information on all school districts.
But we should have strong confidence in the
overall picture that emerges from these seven
states. Across the United States, we have seen
a significant move away from naming schools
after historical figures, such as presidents
and founders, and even a move away from naming
schools after people. Instead, weve seen
a big increase in giving schools nature namesnaming
them after such things as lakes, meadows, and
Naming schools after people consumes political
capital that the coalitions governing schools
are increasingly unwilling to spend. But shrinking
from a fight over naming schools may be symptomatic
of a broader problem with civic education. To
teach civics effectively, schools have to be
willing to take a stand. To teach tolerance,
they have to be intolerant of intolerance. To
teach the virtues of democracy and liberty,
schools have to argue that democracies are superior
systems of government. The unwillingness of
school boards to take stands when naming schools
may indicate a reluctance to take the stands
necessary to teach civics effectively.
The relationship between the political resolve
necessary to name schools after people and the
political resolve necessary for effective civic
education is worthy of attention because it
is clear that public schools are falling short
in their civic mission. According to the U.S.
Department of Educations 2006 assessment
of civics knowledge, only 27 percent of twelfth-graders
demonstrated proficiency, and one-third scored
below the basic level.
More than a third of twelfth-graders didnt
know that the First Amendment protects freedom
In a recent review of the research, public schools
were found to trail private schools in their
effectiveness at promoting political tolerance,
voluntarism, and political participation among
Ironically, the public school system was established
on the explicit belief that government control
as well as operation of schools was necessary
to ensure proper civic values.
What is responsible for these shifts in school
naming? To some extent, the change in school
names is a reflection of broader cultural changes,
including increased skepticism of inherited
wisdom, revisionist history, and increased interest
in the environment. But attributing the change
to culture is an insufficient explanation. Culture
partially shapes the decisions of political
leaders, but culture can also be a product of
the decisions of political leaders. The question
is, why are the political leaders who are in
control of school namesschool board membersincreasingly
reluctant to fight for names that honor individual
This study is not designed to address this
question empirically. Future research, however,
could explore whether the answer may be found
in the narrowing of the coalitions governing
schools. Other researchers have documented that
a variety of Progressive reforms
have reduced broad, democratic control of schools.
Over the last several decades, school boards
have become increasingly likely to operate independently
of city or town governments and to be elected
directly rather than appointed by mayors or
other elected officials. In addition, those
elections are increasingly likely to be held
on off-election days: days when no other political
officials are elected.
Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric
Plutzer describe the effects of these Progressive
reforms: Without the need to incorporate
other local or city concerns into their calculations,
these school boards were expected to act with
an ethos of doing what is best for the
schools rather than through the more political
calculus of partisan office holders. By restricting
themselves to the responsibility of making good
school policy, they would not have to respond
to demands and concerns about other aspects
of community politics.
Education historian David Tyack described these
reforms as undermining broad democratic control
in the name of democracy: [The Progressives]
praised the democratic purposes of public schooling
but sought to remove the control of schools
as far as possible from the people.
The effects of these reforms were to decrease
the influence of political machines by taking
power away from mayors and by focusing on an
off-day electorate that was more concerned with
school policies than with partisan elections.
These reforms have narrowed the coalition governing
schools to the relatively small number of people
who are motivated to vote in an off-day election.
Often these coalitions are dominated by teachers
or other school employees, who are a significant
percentage of the highly motivated people who
take the trouble to vote in off-day school elections.
These coalitions are focused on the narrow concerns
that motivated them to show up on the off-day
election and are less likely to be willing to
expend political capital on such issues as school
names and policies for civic education.
Obviously, additional research is necessary
to examine empirically the relationship between
school governance practices, school naming,
and civic education. But it is reasonable to
suspect that the increasing reluctance of school
boards to take the stands necessary to name
schools after individual people and promote
civic education is related to their narrow focus
on school employee contract negotiations.
Significant changes in school names and civic
education are certain to be slow in the making.
Any efforts to reinvigorate the civic mission
of public schools will include broad cultural
changes. Reports like this one can contribute
to those cultural changes by providing basic
facts on trends in school names as well as sparking
discussion on the civic purposes of public schools
and the role that school names play in those
Other solutions may involve broadening the
political coalitions governing schools. Helping
swing the pendulum back to mayoral control of
school systems may expand the coalitions governing
schools, since mayors tend to be elected in
higher-turnout elections than school board members.
Moving school elections to days when elections
for other offices are held may also bring broader
civic concerns into school policy discussions.
We should continue to monitor trends in school
names and to explore the relationship between
what we name schools and the civic outcomes
of public education.
For this analysis, we used data on the age
of public school buildings from seven states:
Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota,
New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Each school
on these lists was coded according to a predetermined
set of categories (see below). The data set
received from each state was different; therefore,
we varied the categories that we used to code
school names. In addition, we did not use exactly
the same categories for each state, to better
capture the various cultural features across
these seven statesthe ideas, locations,
natural features, and so on, that are significant
for each state. For example, we found that more
schools were named after space shuttles in Florida
than in Minnesota.
Arizona schools were divided into eight categories:
President, Founder, Other People, Nature, Function,
Place, Direction, and Other. A school was classified
as President if it was named after
a president of the United States; Founder
was used for schools named after a founding
figure of the United States who was not also
a president; Other People was used
for schools named after a person who was not
a president of the United States or a founding
figure; a school coded as Nature
was named for a natural feature or animal including,
but not limited to, mountains, rivers, hills,
and creeks; Other was used to code
those schools named for something not included
in these categories.
In Florida, schools were divided into eleven
categories. As in Arizona, we included the categories
of President, Founder,
Nature, and Other. We
added the categories of Southern Leader,
Street, Function, Place,
Direction, and Space.
A school was classified as Southern Leader
if it was named for a prominent individual in
the Confederacy; a school was coded as Street
if it had the same name as the street on which
it was located. The Function category
was used for those schools named for their purpose
(for example, school of the arts
or polytechnic institute). A school
was coded as Direction if it was
named North, South, East, West, Central, or
some other word that denoted direction or location.
The Space category was used for
those schools named after a space program or
In Massachusetts, schools were classified into
the following categories, as described for Arizona
and Florida: President, Founder, Other People,
Nature, Street, Place, and Other. The Place
category was used for those schools named after
the city or district in which the school was
In Minnesota, schools were classified into
the following categories: President, Founder,
Other People, Nature, Function, Place, Direction,
In New Jersey, the following categories were
used: President, Founder, Other People, Nature,
In Ohio, schools were coded as President, Founder,
Other People, Nature, and Other.
In Wisconsin, schools were coded as President,
Founder, Other People, Nature, and Other. The
Wisconsin data set did not include all school
districts in the state, so Wisconsin results
should be treated with less confidence.
There is a fair amount of overlap and ambiguity
in the coding of some schools into the above
categories. In general, we attempted to follow
a set of decision-rules that would allow for
the coding to be as consistent as possible,
at least within each state. For example, a school
was considered to be named after a president
if it had the same name as a president even
if that name was also the name of the city or
district in which the school was located. Presidents
names trumped all other categories. Because
we know the complete set of presidents
names and because we coded schools as named
after presidents with a clear, broad decision-rule,
our results in the president category are likely
to be the most consistent and reliable.
With other categories, it was more difficult
to ensure perfect consistency. A school name
might appear to be a persons surname,
but that might also be the name of the city
or district where the school was located or
of a natural feature in the area. We attempted
to resolve those ambiguities as best as we could,
given the information available from each state.
But because the information from each state
was not always complete or consistent, these
ambiguities could not always be resolved in
the same way, within and across each state.
The net effect of these data and coding difficulties
is that there is some degree of error in how
schools are classified, at least in categories
that are less objective than the president category.
These errors are unlikely to be correlated with
the year that the school was built, so our analysis
of trends over time should be unbiased. But
the degree and direction of error should be
associated with the state in which each school
is located, since different states provided
different-quality data. This means that comparisons
across states, other than for naming schools
after presidents, should be made with great
To compile our national descriptive statistics,
we analyzed data from the National Center for
Education Statistics Common Core of Data for
2005-2006. We conducted name searches for all
presidents and converted the numeric totals
into a percentage of the universe of public
schools (the specific total was 4.47%). This
likely overestimates the number of schools named
after presidents, because in cases of common
names, such as Johnson or Wilson, we gave the
school the benefit of the doubt. In all likelihood,
the actual percentage of public schools named
after presidents is even lower than our figures