Although only private school students used to wear uniforms, public school students are increasingly wearing them as well. One in 5 U.S. public schools required students to wear uniforms during the 2013-2014 school year, up from 1 in 8 in 2003-2004. Public school students are more likely to wear uniforms in high-poverty areas.
Proponents say that school uniforms make schools safer for students. They say uniforms create a "level playing field" that reduces the influence a family's economic background has on a student's education. Uniforms also encourage children to focus on their studies rather than their clothes.
Opponents say that school uniforms violate students' right to express themselves. They also say that students who wear uniforms don't behave better or do better in school. They argue that uniforms actually emphasize rather than hide the differences between wealthy and poor students.
History Of School Uniforms
The origin of the modern school uniform can be traced to 16th-century England. Poor "charity children" attending the Christ's Hospital boarding school wore yellow stockings and blue cloaks. In September 2014, students at Christ's Hospital were still wearing the same uniform, and according to the school it is the oldest school uniform still in use. In 2011, 95 percent of Christ's Hospital students voted to keep the traditional uniforms.
In later centuries, school uniforms became associated with the upper class. At one of England's best schools, Eton, students were required to wear black top hats and tails until 1972. At that point, the dress code began to be relaxed.
In the United States, generally only private schools used uniforms. Government-run boarding schools for Native American children were the exception. The children at these schools, who had been taken away from their families, were dressed in military-style uniforms.
U.S. School Uniform Movement Begins
The first U.S. public schools known to require students to wear uniforms were in Maryland and Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1987. These early uniform programs were voluntary. According to a New York Times report from 1987, most parents supported the idea and most students wore the uniforms. School officials said that the students' "frame of mind" had improved and that discipline problems were down. They also reported that students were not as interested in wearing expensive designer clothing at school. The uniforms also saved the students' families money.
By the fall of 1988, 41 public schools in Washington, D.C., required uniforms. Soon the movement spread to other states, generally in urban schools with mainly low-income and minority students. In 1988, Ed Koch, then-mayor of New York City, expressed support for school uniforms. He said that they encourage "common respect and improve the learning environment."
In 1994, Long Beach Unified School District in California became the first to require all its students to wear uniforms.
School Uniforms And The Law
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools could not restrict students' freedom of expression as long as the students' choices were not disruptive and did not affect the rights of others. The case concerned a group of students who had worn black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. School uniform opponents used this decision to argue that students' choice of clothing is protected by the Free Speech Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Several lower courts have made rulings about school uniforms. These decisions often favored uniform proponents. In a 1995 case in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a federal district judge ruled that wearing "sagging pants" was not a form of freedom of expression. The judge said that "sagging pants" did not convey a "message," nor did they represent an ethnic identity. "Sagging" was merely a teen fashion trend, the judge argued. The student had argued that his choice of outfit was a part of hip-hop style favored by minorities.
In 2000, a 9-year-old student was suspended twice for refusing to wear a school uniform because it went against his family's religious beliefs. After it was challenged by a civil rights group, the school agreed to change its policy. Students were then allowed to opt out for religious reasons.
No state law requires school uniforms and no state law bans uniforms. As of 2008, 22 states allowed schools to institute dress codes or uniform policies.
U.S. Uniform Statistics
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of public schools nationwide requiring students to wear uniforms has increased. In the 2003-2004 school year, only 13 percent of schools had uniforms. That number went up to 19 percent in the 2011-2012 school year. A higher proportion of schools located in cities had required uniforms than schools in suburban, town and rural areas. Uniforms were far more common in "high-poverty" schools than in "low-poverty" schools.