NEW YORK—Diana Acevedo loves school uniforms. They are so convenient and she ends up paying only about half of what she would pay for regular clothes—for her 10-year-old son that is.
On the other hand, her son Johan Congrains would be fine with scrapping the navy pants and lavender shirts required at the Voice Charter School he attends.
And both sentiments are well represented nationally. Multiple surveys have shown a majority of parents like school uniforms, while most students do not.
School uniforms, the long-standing domain of private and religious schools, have steadily gained ground in public schools since the 1990s.
This was especially so after a 1996 thumbs-up from President Bill Clinton. “I believe we should give strong support to school districts that decide to require young students to wear school uniforms,” he said in one of his weekly radio addresses.
While in 2003 about 14 percent of public schools required uniforms, in 2011 it was almost 20 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The idea is also not new to New York City.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to introduce uniforms at public schools right after taking office in 2001. He dropped the idea a year later.
The notion was resurrected Oct. 22 when Councilman Andy King proposed a resolution that would call on the state to make school uniforms mandatory.
“I’ve been meeting with my principals, parents, teachers, and students, and one of the number one concerns that they identified as a distraction to learning was apparel,” said King, who himself adheres to a strict dress code of pastel-colored suits and variegated bow-ties.
“That should be the last thing a child has [to] worry about,” he said.
King cited a known list of benefits to school uniforms: Less bullying of students who can’t afford the “in” clothes, less showing off of pricy brands, more of a sense of belonging, easier to spot strangers in school, easy to spot students outside, less to worry about both for children and parents.
The problem is the benefits are not guaranteed.
Multiple studies that have tracked students over time have shown how mandating a uniform has little to no statistical impact on test scores, attendance, or suspension rates.
But there are success stories, like Long Beach district in California, which adopted school uniforms in 1994. Five years later, in-school crime had dropped by 91 percent, school suspensions decreased 90 percent, sex offenses decreased 96 percent, and vandalism decreased 69 percent.
Yet in such cases the uniforms usually came with other initiatives, like new security measures and increased parent engagement.
Hard to Balance
It is not clear how many New York schools actually require uniforms now. If they do, parents can anonymously apply for financial help if the family cannot afford the uniform, or children can be opted out.
The opt-out option alone has been a problem though. Numerous schools reported adopting uniforms only to drop them later as a small number of opted-out students sparked widespread dissent.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, don’t have to offer waivers, and many in the city require uniforms. But not all do.
“I think it constricts a lot of students’ creativity and expression,” said Pagee Cheung, principal at MESA Charter High School in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Once they get to high school they want to do a lot of that.”
She has no problem with uniforms at elementary and middle schools, but in high schools, students “will always look for ways to rebel against it.”
But MESA still has a strict dress code—shirts and slacks for boys, blouses and skirts or pants for girls—nothing revealing, baggy, or with writing.
“They have to know how to look professional,” Cheung said. “We want them to think of what their parents would wear to work and think of whether or not they would wear that. And that’s been a really good rule for them.”
Yet a strict dress code may be hard to maintain. Just this September a new dress code at Tottenville High School on Staten Island led to hundreds of detentions of rebelling students. A similar incident was reported two years ago at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School.
“We fight battles about dress code all the time,” Cheung said. Having a set uniform may actually be easier for her, but she wants the students to understand the value of presenting themselves well. “We think it’s better for them in the long run,” she said.
For Johan Congrains, despite the initial resistance, a uniform is now the norm, his mother Diana Acevedo said.
She did her job of explaining to him the benefits of a uniform, including the financial ones. Instead of spending at a clothing store he may go to see a movie—and that’s something he can understand “a hundred percent,” Acevedo said.