The Name Game: Obama Beats Bush in School Names

Fewer schools are named after people but Obama bucks the trend.

Aug. 23, 2010— -- He has been in the White House 18 months, but President Obama already has seven U.S. schools named after him, far more than his predecessor George W. Bush and a designation that educators say bucks the trend.

Barack Obama Elementary School in Upper Marlboro, Md., which opened its doors today, became the latest U.S. school to be named after the president. Only one school is named after Bush, the George W. Bush Elementary School in Stockton, Calif.

Popularity plays a big role in whether the president gets the honor of having his name permanently installed on a school building. Bush's popularity was at an all-time low when he left office: His approval rating hovered at an average of 29 percent in the last quarter of his presidency, according to Gallup's polling.

At the same time, it is not uncommon for some time to pass before schools take on a president's name. There are many more academic institutions honoring President George H.W. Bush today than there were in the 1990s, after he left office in 1993 amid dismal ratings and a fledgling economy.

That seven schools have already adopted Obama's name is a shift from the norm, said Jay Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. But it's not surprising given that he is the first African-American U.S. head of state.

"In general, some time passes before they leave or die before schools are named after them, so it's not too surprising that we don't see a lot of George W. Bush schools because he only recently left office and is very much alive," Greene said.

"The more exceptional thing is that we're already seeing more schools named after Obama. But, then again, there's something exceptional about Obama. He is the first African-American president and people want to take note of that."

The White House declined comment on the naming of Barack Obama Elementary School.

Early U.S. presidents remain the most popular choice for school names, with George Washington leading the pack. John F. Kennedy is one of the most popular modern-day presidents when it comes to school names.

"The trauma of losing a president to an assassination is part of what may spark more honors," Greene said.

Institutions honoring both President Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, span from coast to coast. The name for the most expensive school in the nation, the $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles, was adopted with little objection.

The new school is the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, where the senator and presidential contender was killed in 1968.

But while popularity has a part to play, there is also an element of luck.

"There have been waves of new school construction to handle population increases like the baby boom," Greene said. "With boomers flooding into newly built schools in the '60s and '70s, JFK would have been killed just at that time."

Overall, the trend in school names is moving away from people and presidents to natural elements. A 2007 study by Greene and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that the number of U.S. schools named after a president had declined to fewer than 5 percent and a majority of school districts did not have a single school named after a president.

Fewer School Names Honor Presidents

In the past two decades, a public school in Arizona was almost 50 times more likely to be named after natural elements such as a mesa or a cactus than after a president, the study found.

One of the reasons for the trend is that schools want to avoid the controversy that comes with adopting the names of presidents.

Even though the newly built Barack Obama Elementary School is in a county that voted heavily for Obama in 2008, it had its share of detractors, with one Republican calling the name a "political endorsement."

People also tend to feel slighted, as in the case of President Reagan, who has 15 schools named after him compared to hundreds based on Kennedy.

Several organizations have been pushing to get Reagan's name in more schools and public places. But such efforts haven't been without their share of controversy.

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform and head of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, said partisan backlash by the left is one of the reasons behind the battles over naming schools after the late president.

"Most of the Democrats who thought Reagan was wrong about how he handled the Cold War, having been humiliated by his success and their failure, don't want to continue that conversation," Norquist said. "They were all wrong about his economic policies, so Democrats don't really want to engage that question because Reagan was right and they were wrong ... We don't have to refight those fights all the time."

Some experts say the reason for such a push is that school names help highlight a person's legacy.

"This is an interesting way of measuring ideological and political change," said Sanford V. Levinson, a professor of government at the University of Texas and author of "Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies."

Public school naming is a "very important part of political education precisely because if you attend the Robert F. Kennedy schools ... or Reagan, or fill in the blank with anybody at all -- local heroes, civil rights heroes -- you have to explain to your kids" their achievements and influence.

However, some states and cities are also more restrictive than others when it comes to naming conventions. Arkansas law prohibits naming of any institution or monument while the person is alive.

New Orleans doesn't allow schools to be named after U.S. leaders who had owned slaves, which has essentially barred Washington from that city.

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