Why don't our public schools have uniforms?
Today was the first day of school, and it's one of those milestone First Days of School, because The Pea is now a 6th grader. I feel like we've entered a whole new world, and in a sense, we have. Now that she's in middle school, The Pea bikes to school on her own, she'll be moving from class to class, she has her own school locker, and she has to follow a dress code.
Having to deal with The Pea's dress code has brought about a fresh wave of longing for school uniforms. I wore uniforms as a schoolgirl, and all schoolchildren in the UK (where we spent 5 weeks of our summer vacation) wear uniforms as well. Schoolwear in the UK can cost as little as £2 for a top, £3 for a pair of trousers, £4 for a cardigan, and £5 for a pinafore. I honestly don't understand why US public schools haven't adopted the practice. I dug out a post I wrote a few years back for the Silicon Valley Moms Blog, and I found that my post is just as relevant today as it was then.
To celebrate the First Day of Middle School, I'm reprinting my post:
When the time came for us to decide between public and private education for our kids, the decision was easy. We knew that parents pay big bucks to live in postage-stamp sized houses in order to get their kids into Palo Alto public schools, so we figured they must have decent schools. And the other benefits of private schools, such as smaller class sizes and better music/arts/p.e. programs? We figured we could compensate by helping her out with schoolwork, signing her up for afterschool activities and fostering a love of learning at home. Besides, there is the diversity of ethnicity and culture and origins and experience in public schools that money cannot buy. We made our decision and never looked back.
Except for one silly thing. I do wish my daughter wore school uniforms like most private schools do. Call me shallow; I just think a group of schoolgirls and schoolboys in uniform looks neat, orderly and cute. And call me nostalgic; school uniforms remind me of my own schooldays, when things were simple and carefree. With images of kids going to school looking like mini gang members or mini streetwalkers, I wonder if my daughter's schooldays will ever be as simple and carefree.
Actually, wearing school uniforms has benefits that are anything but shallow or silly. They are practical (they certainly saved me and my parents the time and hassle of figuring out what to wear every morning). They promote an atmosphere of learning. And they send a clear message: your worth is not determined by outward appearances or how much money your family has, and your individuality and self-expression is not limited to how you look. School — and growing up — is difficult enough without "outfit peer pressure". Yes, there will always be ways that the Queen Bees at school can show everyone that they are rich and popular (in my day, it was scented Swatch watches — boy I would have killed for a Swatch). But uniforms can help relieve some of the pressure to dress right and fit in.
I do sometimes wonder why more public schools don't have some sort of dress code (I'm talking "white polo shirt and navy skirt", not "no spaghetti tank tops") or school uniform policy. I've heard arguments that uniforms impose an unnecessary expense onto lower-income students. But parents still have to send their kids with something on, don't they? My own back-to-school wardrobe consisted of just 3 school blouses and 3 school skirts. And I was able to pass them on to my younger sister even though our taste in clothes is completely different. Just like regular clothes, there's a uniform for every budget, from Kmart to Walmart to Target to Lands End to Talbots to custom-made. Also, PTAs could organize a uniform swap or secondhand sale to make uniforms even more affordable.
I've also heard that uniforms infringe on students' rights to self-expression. But that doesn't seem to be the case in Japan and the UK, two fashion-forward countries where school uniforms are the norm and whose youth have no problem expressing themselves in the latest styles — after school hours. My friends and I were happy to impress everybody with our Madonna or Flashdance inspired outfits in the afternoons and on weekends. If a school decides it simply must allow students to show off their latest Baby Phat outfits, they could always institute Casual Fridays. And besides, since when is self-expression limited to what a person wears?
So exactly what is wrong with uniforms? Girl Scouts, gymnastics teams, ballet students all wear uniforms. Doctors wears scrubs and judges wear robes. Even businessmen on Wall Street have a uniform. Uniforms indicate common interests and a common purpose. Just as wearing business attire signifies you are there to do business, wearing school uniforms signifies to a student that he is there to learn. Now that's not so silly, is it?