What's in a Name? The Decline in The Civic Mission of School Names

Publication Date: July 2007

Publisher: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Center for Civic Innovation

Author(s): Jay P. Greene; Brian Kisida; Jonathan Butcher

Research Area: Culture and religion; Education; Social conditions

Keywords: civic mission; school names; public schools

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


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.