SCHOOL UNIFORM REVIVAL PROPELLED BY CONTROVERSY
Byline: Peter Braunstein
NEW YORK — The contestation over appropriate school clothing has led some parents and school administrators to call for mandatory uniforms in public schools.
The recent push toward school uniforms began in 1994, when the crime-plagued Long Beach, Calif., school system instituted a uniform policy as a handy way of distinguishing gang members from noncombatants. Since then, several big-city school districts, including Baltimore, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Phoenix and San Antonio, have either mandated uniforms or allowed individual schools to develop their own uniform policies.
Since 1999, roughly 75 percent of New York City’s public elementary school children — totaling about 400,000 — have donned uniforms. Philadelphia, the fifth-largest school district in the U.S., decided to make uniforms mandatory for its 217,000 public school students come the 2001-2002 academic year.
While only a minority of public school students nationwide wear uniforms, their numbers are increasing steadily. A 1997 Department of Education study found only 3 percent of the nation’s public school students were required to wear uniforms. By 2000, that number had jumped to 10 percent, according to a study commissioned by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and Lands’ End, which makes a lot of uniforms.
Supporters credit uniforms in schools with reducing peer pressure, distractions and violence; enhancing school pride; muting economic and social-class differences and allowing students to focus on studies instead of styles.
“It makes it very easy for the ‘have-nots’ and ‘haves’ to get along because they all look alike,” said Ray Rivera, principal of a K-8 school in El Paso, Tex.
Or maybe it just forces students to wait until after 3 p.m. to flaunt their differences. Others argue that uniforms give parents a much-needed financial respite from “keeping up with the Joneses” by outfitting their kids in the latest must-have items.
But the savings are not eye-popping: An NPD Group study in 1998 found that families buying school uniforms spent an average of $104 on clothing, while those with children in nonuniform schools averaged $185.
Opponents argue that uniforms squelch individuality and free expression. In a scathing Op-Ed diatribe appearing in the Arizona Republic, one writer railed that kids shouldn’t have to wear uniforms because they “have plenty of time to lose their identities. Soon enough we will send them off to work for Micro-this or Macro-that at ebusiness.com, and they will officially join the ranks of the identity-less.”
The sardonic article concluded that “Corporate America is cruel. Kindergarten shouldn’t be.” Others maintain that studies linking uniforms to decreased student violence and better grades are impressionistic and inconclusive. A 1998 survey by Notre Dame University in Indiana found no evidence that uniforms raised academic performance. Meanwhile, several lawsuits have been initiated nationwide by parents contesting the right of schools to institute dress codes.
What is certain is that the school uniform business is booming, both for big retailers like Lands’ End and smaller players. Althea Morris, vice president of the Houston-based Morris Uniforms, has seen a 20 percent growth in volume over last year.
“In 1999, several states went over to school uniforms — Louisiana, Florida — and we picked up retailers in both states,” said Morris. “Uniforms are popular everywhere now. We put up a Web site last January and immediately got calls from all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico.”
Another school uniform supplier, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based True Grits, also took to the Web last month in response to the growing nationwide demand for uniforms.
The Lands’ End School Uniform Store at landsend.com also makes it clear that uniforms today have evolved beyond the plaid formalism of past years in favor of oxford shirts, chino skorts and penny loafers. It’s a new uniform style that takes its cue not from New England prep academy, but from the Gap slogan “everyone in khakis.”