SAN FERNANDO, CALIF. — AT the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a public school in this Los Angeles suburb, eight-year-old Edith sports the latest in playground PC clothes: a burgundy plaid uniform. "They look neat," she says.
But Jonathan Morales wouldn't consider swapping his baggy Levis for gray slacks or his oversized T-shirt for a starchy white shirt and tie. "They make you look real nerdy, like a schoolboy," says the burly sixth-grader.
The twin views hint at the harangues likely to echo through hallways as a growing number of public schools across the country adopt uniforms for students.
For the past decade, more schools have turned to standardized clothing to assuage campus problems, from gang-related violence to the gap between rich and poor students. But now some are making ties and pleated skirts mandatory instead of voluntary, touching off a sartorial - and constitutional - debate among parents, teachers, and kids.
"When it's optional, it doesn't work," says Jorge Lara, parent and staff worker at the Vaughn Center, a school for kindergarten through sixth grade. "If some people don't support the uniforms, then they allow others to make fun of them and the whole thing is a bust."
In July, the Vaughn Center - which in 1991 became the first Los Angeles public school to adopt voluntary uniforms - will make history again as the first to make them mandatory. But it isn't alone. For instance:
* Oakland County will become the second school district in California to require uniforms this fall, following a 1994 decision in Long Beach.
* Dade County, Fla., recently voted to allow its 300 schools to make uniforms mandatory. Each school will decide for itself if kids suit up.
* Charleston, S.C., school board members recently made the same decision for its 73 schools.
"It does appear to be a national trend," says Nelson Canton of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers' union based in Washington, D.C.
Benefits of uniforms
Advocates say uniforms are appealing because they help reduce gang-related activity, more readily identify intruders on campus, reduce distractions in the classroom, and reduce families' clothing costs by cutting down on the number of Levis and sweat shirts parents have to buy.
Concern about violence first spurred many schools to consider uniforms a decade ago. The 1988 movie "Colors" spelled out the dangers faced by students who wear gang-style colors or clothing.
But proponents also see other advantages, such as fostering a sense of belonging, discipline, and respect among children. Nearly 90 percent of Vaughn's parents, for instance, support the uniforms, according to a recent school survey.
Teresa Castro, a young mother
of four, says through an interpreter that she is "delighted." The children will look neat and clean, and the school has a work program to help parents who can't afford to buy the uniforms outright.
But others are less enthusiastic - and it's not just students worried about their appearance in the cafeteria. Critics of mandatory uniform codes say junior and senior high school students need to learn to make wise choices, not be told what to do.
They see uniforms as encouraging conformity and therefore undermining cornerstones of American education such as creativity and independent thinking.
The American Civil Liberties Union even goes further. It has suggested that uniforms policies may infringe freedom of expression.
Uniforms proponent Sylvia Seidel of the National Center for Innovation, a division of the NEA, concedes that "we pride ourselves on our individualism and don't want to allow anything that will chip away at that."
But she says it's time for children to take pride in being part of a group. Other boosters of uniforms say that rather than undermining educational goals, they bring back traditional values that many parents say are lacking from today's schools.
In April last year, California lawmakers tried to forge a balance between concerns of freedom of expression and school safety and discipline. The state became the first to allow public schools to require uniforms, with the provisions that students be allowed to transfer if they don't want to wear them and parents may submit a written exemption request.
Rush to pleats and ties
The number of voluntary uniform policies has mushroomed on Los Angeles campuses. Two years ago fewer than 10 campuses had them. Today, 203 out of 540 campuses do.
Some educators see the debate over uniforms as a way to get at deeper problems plaguing schools, such as the lack of community.
"Uniforms don't have to be a requirement when it comes as a result of a participatory decision," says Ms. Seidel.
"Parents and children can make the decision together," Seidel adds.
This gives them a reason to unite behind a common goal. Children need to have a voice in what they wear and, says Seidel, "we all give up some autonomy for the greater good. If it decreases violence to de-emphasize clothes, then this is good for all."
Back at Vaughn elementary, a tidy campus in a working-class, Hispanic section of the San Fernando Valley, the debate over mandatory uniforms is just beginning. Though most parents favor the new code, others aren't so sure.
Take 20-year-old Brian Jackson, who attended Vaughn in its pre-uniform days and who still lives in the neighborhood. He says the kids look good in their crisp, new duds.
But he thinks they should be able to wear what they want. Still, Mr. Jackson, who works at Magic Mountain, admits safety is an issue. "Boy I'm glad I'm not in school now," he says.