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Public School Uniforms: Symbol of the Times 

Photograph Source: Henrickson – CC BY-SA 3.0

The uniformity of the shades of dark and light blue clothing on the children fans out from the New York City street corner next to a charter school and seems to cover an entire city block. The uniformity is everywhere. Even the student backpacks are blue.

Growing up in the late 1950s and early to mid 1960s, the kind of uniforms I see in New York were reserved for schools in my community that had religious affiliations. Even the staid, but slowly changing 1950s would never have had any hint of the loss of individualism that comes from wearing school uniforms. My family owned a clothing store during those years and I got to dress fairly well in some new styles of the day and that dress, although entirely superficial to learning, didn’t seem to be out of place with the times.

In “The Downsides of School Uniforms” (New Yorker, September 6, 2017), the beginning of the move toward wearing school uniforms is placed historically within the Clinton administration:

Bill Clinton happened. In 1996, Clinton, running for reelection and eager to shore up his conservative credentials, championed mandatory school uniforms “as the kind of small-bore, low-cost, common-sense policy initiative that might appeal to a broad cross-section of voters,” as the legal scholars Deborah M. Ahrens and Andrew M. Siegel write, in their forthcoming paper “Reconsidering the Constitutionality of Student Dress Restrictions.” Clinton plugged uniforms in his State of the Union address that year and had his Department of Education issue a manual for schools that were transitioning to require uniforms. While some schools had experimented with uniforms in the eighties and nineties, it’s clear, Ahrens and Siegel argue, that “the modern enthusiasm for uniforms can be traced pretty directly to the 1996 Clinton administration initiative.”

So, it wasn’t a Republican administration such as that of Ronald Reagan with his administration’s attack against public schooling that began with A Nation At Risk (1983), but within the neoliberal Clinton administration that the push toward uniformity in school dress began in earnest.

I recently spoke with the parent of a New York City elementary school student who changed schools during the current academic year because of moving to a new neighborhood. The old school and the student’s new school had different uniforms and both were still public schools with the common “PS” prefix. Even shoes were different and when the student was outfitted in his new uniform, the bottom line ended up costing several hundred dollars. Some clothing items of the new uniform were not all that easy to purchase, like the specific color of tie that male students had to wear (girls wear a kind of bowtie). Problem is, that even with a strong velcro closure for the child’s tie, the ties went the way of the Edsel on some days, causing a constant replenishing of the tie cache. Shoes must be black at this child’s school and that requirement creates a whole other problem since many black shoes are sneaker-type shoes and those kinds of shoes are only allowed at this school on gym day. The required black shoes are difficult to find and they have to be bought from specific sources, another hassle of the school uniform requirement.

An argument is often heard surrounding the school uniform debate that uniforms remove status connected to a particular kind of clothing or shoes that are in fashion and impart status to a student whose family can afford that particular clothing or shoe item and make less well-to-do students feel left out and stigmatized.

Well-tailored kids’ clothing has become reasonably priced because of the availability of that clothing from cheap sources around the world that a globalized economy has created. While worker conditions could be used as an argument against individual expression through free clothing choices, it must be noted that school uniforms come from the same global sources and are not as easy to find as some general clothing choices available today.

While studying school administration at the graduate level, the school law case decided by the Supreme Court’s in 1969 in Tinker v. Des Moines held that public high-school students could wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The case was a positive affirmation that students don’t leave their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. How far that decision is from the movement toward requiring students to wear school uniforms today.

When I see the masses of sameness on the streets of New York City today, I recoil at the fact that uniforms take away a kind of free expression of kids’ individualism and recall that when growing up, it was the kids at religious-affiliated schools who all dressed the same.

There are many variables that factor into children’s education. Among those variables are economic level, early learning experiences, and language development. The clothes a student wears are not one of those variables.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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