Once on their way out, uniforms have increased in popularity at public and private schools across the country. Much of the popularity dates back to the late 1980s, when Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, and other schools began to institute a mandatory uniform policy. Long Beach, California became the first large city school district in the nation to require uniforms in 1994. According to information from the district, the program enjoys great popularity, and, although parents are allowed to opt out of the program, only about 2% do so. The program provides assistance for parents who cannot afford uniforms for their children, and many graduating students donate their uniforms to needy families.
The Long Beach program and others like it became so popular that in 1996, President Bill Clinton asked the Education Department to advise school districts on how they could institute a school uniform policy. Many studies were conducted that showed a great reduction in violence after the inception of the Long Beach program. For example, a 1996 article in Education Week credited the Long Beach program with a drastic reduction in school violence and discipline problems. Currently, schools in about 21 states and the District of Columbia ask their students to wear uniforms.
Private schools have long used uniforms, and many schools today also have dress codes. While uniforms require all students to dress the same way, dress codes are general rules about acceptable dress. For example, dress codes may ask students to wear a tie or khakis for boys or a skirt and shirt of a certain color for girls. While the merits of uniforms are still hotly debated in private and public schools, here are some of the pros and cons:
Cons of Uniforms: Limiting Free Expression
In the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines , the Supreme Court ruled that school districts could not limit the free speech of students who had decided to wear black arm bands to school to protest the Vietnam War unless they showed the speech posed a “substantial disturbance.” Some opponents of school uniforms argue that they curtail free speech, but the issue has not appeared before the Supreme Court. The court in recent years has begun to allow school boards more discretion in matters of free speech in the schools.
The Benefits of Uniforms: Reduced Crime and A Sense of Belonging
Studies of public school uniform programs have found that they are associated with reduced violence. For example, statistics cited in a 1999 article in Psychology Today found that since the Long Beach program had been implemented, crime in the schools in their district had dropped by 91% and that suspensions were down by 90%. Experts believed that the uniforms created a stronger sense of community and that when students felt like they belonged in their schools, they were less likely to cause harm.
While violence is not often a problem in private schools, differences in social status among the students can be. Proponents of school uniforms believe that they remove emphasis from wearing the right kinds of clothes and focus students on learning. School uniforms or even a dress code reduce the possibility of some students flaunting their wealth through their clothing, and similarity of dress may also create a feeling of cohesion among the students. In addition, the existence of a dress code can provide incentives for students through the reward of a “dress-down day” for good behavior. In general, more formal dress tends to help kids behave better. As teachers in private schools know from experience, on days when students are dressed formally, they tend to act more maturely, as kids literally act the part of dressing better.