Name Schools Only After the Dead

Obama in Florida

Here's a very safe prediction: Los Angeles is going to have change the names of a lot of its new schools.

That prediction is based on a smart LA Times story that looks at all the names that have been given to new schools in Los Angeles Unified School District during the school construction surge of the past several years. The story notes that politically connected people, from leading politicians to the parents of Congressman-elect Tony Cardenas, have got their names on schools.

But there's a bigger problem with many of these school names: The people receiving the honor of having a school named after them are alive.

It's a very bad, basic mistake to name schools and other high-profile institutions after the living. That's because the living, no matter how wonderful we think they are, still have years left of living to disappoint us -- or to do revolting, embarassing or even criminal things.

That's why, despite the understandable desire to have a diverse array of role models associated with the schools, it's foolish to name schools for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama, President Clinton or Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, all of whom have LA schools name after them.

What if Obama has a disastrous second-term, or is caught up in a scandal? What if Bill Clinton behaves like, well, Bill Clinton?

LA already made the mistake of naming its central library after former Mayor Richard Riordan. I'm a huge fan of Riordan and his work, but he's also a lightning rod, sponsoring an ongoing effort to change pensions for public workers. Could his name -- particularly if he becomes unpopular -- hurt public support for the library?

It's worth worrying about this stuff.

The dead are better candidates for naming because they can't do anything to sully positive legacies. Yes, of course, there's always the possibility of post-mortem revelations of scandal. Which is why it may be wise to name things for people who have been dead for a decade or so.

Why does it matter? Because naming is a difficult, fraught choice. And it's terrible to have to take the name of a person off the school. Given LA's choice of living political players, it's a very safe bet that we'll see names taken off schools before too long.

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