Schools, parents, and students frequently clash over the issue of regulating what students may and may not wear to school. These controversies often pegged to the culture war of the moment touch on everything from gender and sexuality to politics, race, and religion. In 2021, a group of about 50 students in Georgia protested their middle school’s dress code for being discriminatory against BIPOC girls by wearing t-shirts every Friday emblazoned with the words “sexist,” “racist,” and “classist.” In 2022, a fight between students, staff, and police officers broke out at a Pennsylvania high school when hats and hoodies were banned as part of a revision by the school board to the school’s dress code. And in 2023, two Michigan middle schoolers, via their mother, sued their school district after they were banned from wearing “Let’s Go Brandon” sweatshirts.
Are school uniforms the best solution to this contentious debate? If every student is wearing the same outfit, will a host of campus problems be solved? Researchers are divided over how much of an impact — if any — dress policies have on student learning. There are multiple studies with conflicting conclusions, plus books such as 2018’s The Debate About School Uniforms, but the argument wears on, with a list of pros and cons on each side.
Why do some public schools have uniforms?
In the 1980s, public schools were often compared unfavorably to Catholic schools. Noting the perceived benefit that uniforms conferred upon Catholic schools, some public schools decided to adopt a school uniform policy.
President Clinton provided momentum to the school uniform movement when he said in his 1996 State of the Union speech, “If it means teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.”
The pros and cons of school uniforms
According to proponents, school uniforms:
- Help prevent gangs from forming on campus
- Encourage discipline
- Help students resist peer pressure to buy trendy clothes
- Help identify intruders in the school
- Diminish economic and social barriers between students
- Increase a sense of belonging and school pride
- Improve attendance
Opponents contend that school uniforms:
- Violate a student’s right to freedom of expression
- Are simply a Band-Aid on the issue of school violence
- Make students a target for bullies from other schools
- Are a financial burden for poor families
- Are an unfair additional expense for parents who pay taxes for a free public education
- Are difficult to enforce in public schools
Uniforms vs. dress codes
Schools and districts vary widely in how closely they adhere to the concept of uniformity.
What’s a dress code?
Generally, dress codes are more relaxed than uniform policies. Sometimes, however, dress codes are quite strict with requirements that are potentially viewed as biased based on race or gender. In 2020, two Black male students in Texas, cousins with West Indian heritage, were suspended for wearing dreadlocks in supposed violation of the district’s hair and grooming policy, part of the dress code. The elder one, a senior, was told he couldn’t attend prom or graduation until his dreads were trimmed. In 2022, girls on the track team at an Albany, NY high school were sent home for wearing sports bras at practice.
Uniforms are certainly easier for administrators to enforce than dress codes, largely because the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) can be depended upon to protect a student’s “right to express themselves.” The ACLU believes dress codes are often used to, “shame girls, force students to conform to gender stereotypes… punish students who wear political and countercultural messages. Such policies can be used as cover for racial discrimination… Dress codes can also infringe on a student’s religious rights…” To successfully enforce a dress code, insists the ACLU, the school must prove the student’s attire, “is disruptive to school activities.”
The ACLU’s dress code stance is regularly supported by federal courts, like the 2023 lower court ruling in North Carolina that ended a charter school decree that girls couldn’t wear pants to school. ACLU lawyers claimed this violated Title IX because the dress code “discriminated against female students by limiting their ability to fully participate in school activities, such as using the playground.” The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to take up a case challenging the lower court’s ruling.
Check with your school to see what the dress code is, as they can be fairly specific. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, the dress code prohibits:
- Symbols, mottoes, words or acronyms that convey crude, vulgar, profane, violent, death-oriented, gang-related, sexually explicit, or sexually suggestive messages.
- Symbols, mottoes, words or acronyms advertising tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia.
- Symbols, mottoes, words or acronyms identifying a student as a member of a secret or overtly antisocial group or gang or that identifies a student as a member of an organization that professes violence or hatred toward one’s fellow man.
- Visible and permanent tattoos/brands incompatible with the standards set forth herein shall be covered to prohibit their display.
- Excessively large or baggy clothes
What’s a uniform?
School uniforms worldwide can widely range from nondescript to bizarre. (Extreme examples from China, Australia, and the UK on this YouTube video) Most public school outfits in the USA are quite casual, with a “common type” for boys often a polo shirt in a solid color, with pants in khaki, black, or navy blue. A girl’s uniform is often a skirt and a white buttoned-up shirt. Dress shoes are frequently required for both genders.
In the United States, low-income families spend an average of $249 on a child’s school uniform annually, far less than the typical Australian student’s $578. But still, the cost is sometimes viewed as unfair because public education is intended to be free, paid by tax dollars, not “a stress for families on lower incomes.” The ACLU believes that public schools should provide free school uniforms, because the expense is unconstitutional, and it increases wealth inequity.
What research says about school uniforms
In 2006, Virginia Draa, professor at Youngstown State University, reviewed the impact of school uniforms at 64 public high schools that had larger percentages of economically disadvantaged and minority students than other urban schools. Her conclusion surprised her: “I really went into this thinking uniforms don’t make a difference, but I came away seeing that they do… I was absolutely floored.” Her analysis determined that the schools with uniforms improved their students attendance, and graduation rates rose an average almost 11 percent.
In 2022, Ohio State University and University of Pennsylvania researchers reached a contrary opinion in their report titled “School Uniforms and Students Behavior: Is There a Link?” Their view was that, in general, evidence that school uniforms improve social skills in the students was “inconclusive.” The solitary praise they provided to uniform-wearing was noting there was “some indication that low-income students in schools that required uniforms demonstrated better school attendance than low-income students in schools that did not.”
What to believe? Jury is still out.
What do students think about uniforms?
A student discussion: pros and cons of uniforms
Editor’s note: This video is part of our high school milestones series about communication skills. The students in this video discuss the pros and cons of school uniforms.
A University of Nevada, Reno, survey of 1,848 middle school students, published in 2022, revealed that 90 percent did not like wearing a uniform to school. Only 30 percent believed the uniforms “might reduce discipline issues, a mere 17 percent thought the uniform helped them focus at school, 34 percent believed their school was safer due to the uniforms and 37 percent said, “I worry less about my appearance” due to the uniform requirement.”
An earlier study, also in Nevada, displayed similar unpopularity with newly instituted uniforms among middle school students. However, when the researchers looked into school discipline and local police records and compared them to the prior year’s data, discipline referrals were down 10 percent, there were 63 percent fewer police log reports, and incidences of graffiti, fights, and gang-related activity were all down.
It’s a big issue
A new trend is the mounting pressure to establish dress codes for teachers. Apparently, the same casual mindset toward revealing outfits is cropping up in the ranks of our teachers.
The debate over uniforms in public schools encompasses many larger issues than simply what children should wear to school. It touches on issues of school improvement, freedom of expression, and hot-button culture wars. It’s no wonder the debate rages on.