“What’s in a name?” Juliet Capulet famously mused to her paramour Romeo some years ago. “That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet,” she opined for the ages.

But if Juliet thought that names like Montague and Capulet weren’t important in the end, are the names we place on schools and other buildings in the public square perhaps revealing about the civic values such names transmit?

A discussion about the names for public schools is timely in light of a debate going on in reaction to the recent mass murders of African-Americans in a church in South Carolina and the appropriateness of the Confederate battle flag flying on the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia. Now, some communities are engaged in heated discussions about whether Robert E. Lee might not be the best name for a school.

Most of us remember growing up and attending schools in places with names that reflected the history and ideals of our republic. It should come as no surprise that the most common names for our public or common schools are Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin (as in Benjamin), and Roosevelt (as in FDR and TR),  as well as points on the compass.

So let’s also hear it for South, North and Central high schools in Westerville, Ohio and dozens of other communities that leverage geography for school names. Come to think of it, school names like Alcott, Cherrington, Emerson, Hanby, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Robert Frost, Whittier, and Wilder, also part of Westerville City Schools, demonstrate a community’s reverence for the individuals that shaped our culture through their literary and musical work as well as civic engagement.

Indeed, the names we choose for our schools are telling. If we believe that the purposes of education are to produce literate, skilled, thoughtful and ethical citizens, many of us know and believe that public schools also serve to transmit our cultural heritage. There is no doubt that the great American names listed above do just that, reminding us that those who came before us shaped our literature, music, and life –and thus our American culture.

With the rush toward charter schools and privatization, it is quite apparent that our regard for American writers, poets composers and community leaders does not provide the basis for the names of many charter schools. Quite the opposite. This lack of civic connection to the communities where these so-called schools-of-choice are located calls into question some of the purposes of public education – including the all-important function of public schools serving as agents for the transmission of our cultural heritage.

A look at some of the most common names for Ohio’s charter schools provides an example for a trend that runs counter to the goal of fostering civic engagement and community identity. Here is a partial list from the Ohio Department of Education’s website that identifies the most prominent for-profit charter school chains operating in the Buckeye State:

Name of Charter School or Chain Number of Schools or Locations
Summit Academies 26
Constellation Schools 17
Life Skills Centers 15
Horizon Academies 15
Imagine Academies 8
STEAM Academies 5
Hope Academies 4
Focus Learning Academies 4
Total Number of Buildings– Chains of 4 or More Schools 94
Total Number of Charter Schools from Website 381

NOTE: Charter school chains operate other schools under different brand names. This list only includes those with a common descriptor used in multiple locations.

An additional look at the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school directory shows how often the same few words are used in a school name. It appears that approximately 243 of the 381 schools (duplicated count) have the name academy in their title, 50 identify as some type of community school, 37 use the word prep or preparatory, yet only two have charter school as part of their identity. (Note that these numbers represent a duplicated count, as a building might, for example, have a name such as ABC Community Preparatory Charter Academy.)

If we are at all interested in what’s in a name, would Meatloaf say that as far as full disclosure is concerned, 2 out of 381 ain’t bad? Based upon the contents of the last two paragraphs, the previous question is raised to evoke a response for future public policy consideration.

Which bring us back to the purpose of public education. In an essay about the role of public education written more than a decade ago, Kenneth Conklin raised some concerns about education and culture. Though some of his observations were about local conditions in Hawai’i, his warning for those concerned about seeing parallel systems of public education, viz., traditional and charter, needs to be considered.

“If an educational system is altered, its transmission of culture will be distorted,” Conklin wrote.  He also believes that “The easiest way to break apart a society long-term without using violence is to establish separate educational systems for the groups to be broken apart.”

What if Conklin is right in his assessment of the dangers of parallel school systems?  What does this mean for all of us?

A further examination of some school names in the charter industry might shed further light on civic and community values as well as the corporatization of public education and the values (or lack of) that come from privatizing public education. (Hmm, could the term corporate public education be an oxymoron? If it is, then we’ve identified a big problem in contemporary American society.)

In other words, the problem is community values versus corporate values. And if that is a valid observation, should charter schools be more accurately called corporate schools rather than public schools?

When it comes to school names, we have a lot to think about. After all, Juliet, what’s in a name?

Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office.